After more than 50 people spoke in support of Santa Monica’s 153 downtown ficus trees February 19th, the Santa Monica City Council denied an appeal filed by Treesavers that would have overturned the Landmarks Commission’s decision in January to deny the trees landmark status.
The appeal would also have saved the 54 ficus trees slated for removal as part of the city’s streetscape improvement project.
To be designated city landmarks, the groups of ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard needed to meet at least one of the six criteria set forth in the city’s landmarks ordinance.
The city claims the ficus trees don’t meet any of the landmark designation criteria.
But Treesavers argued that the ficus trees met three of the six landmark criteria, including Criterion 3, because they are historically identified with Clo Hoover, Santa Monica’s first female mayor, and Jacqueline Girion, a community volunteer and early environmental activist who was heavily involved with the tree planting efforts.
“I think there’s been compelling evidence” that these trees are landmarks, said Woody Girion, one of Jacqueline Girion’s five sons, who argued that the collective groups of ficus trees are what makes them historic.
“This is a groundswell,” he continued. “This isn’t going to go away.”
Chris Paine — who has been heavily involved in the tree-saving efforts and is the director and writer of Who Killed the Electric Car? — agreed, noting there were “high grounds to consider this appeal.”
Paine said he was not persuaded by the city staff report, which stated, “These trees are not an excellent representation of their species and do not possess unique or noteworthy characteristics on an individual basis or as groups with their existing linear canopies.”
But in the end, after a lengthy public hearing, the City Council was not convinced that the 153 downtown ficus trees met any of the six landmark criteria and thus denied the appeal, siding with both the Landmarks Commission and the city.
Councilman Kevin McKeown cast the sole dissenting vote — after making a motion to add a friendly amendment to reconsider the removal of the ficus trees, which failed.
McKeown asked that his no vote reflect his “dismay at the council’s refusal to consider an amendment allowing reconsideration of the underlying decision to use public money, against public opinion, to remove healthy trees.”
Councilman Bob Holbrook said, “It’s hard for me to make the connection that these trees are more historic than any other group of trees in the city.”
Mayor Herb Katz said he thinks trees are very important, but, “In my opinion, these trees are not landmarks. As far as savings the trees, that’s another issue.”
The council’s role was not to save or condemn the trees — it was to interpret the landmark ordinance and decide whether or not they believed the ficus trees met any of the six landmark criteria, which would make them city landmarks. To date, only five trees have ever been landmarked in Santa Monica.
However, any of the councilmembers — except McKeown, who opposed the plan from the start — could have asked for a reconsideration of the tree removal part of the $8.2 million Second and Fourth Streets Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements project, approved by the City Council in August. No councilmember did that.
The streetscape improvement project calls for the removal of 54 ficus trees.
Of the 54 ficus trees, 23 were identified as “diseased” — although they are now being called “structurally unstable” by the city — and are to be converted to compost. The other 31 are to be removed and replanted elsewhere in the city.
In each of their spots, two ginkgo biloba trees are to be planted.
Local activist Jerry Rubin, who heads Treesavers, said he wasn’t surprised the appeal was denied, but he was very disappointed.
“But even more disappointing is the fact that they wouldn’t vote to reconsider this item,” Rubin said of the council.
But Treesavers’ fight is far from over.
“We’re going to do everything possible legally, politically and diplomatically to save these trees,” said Rubin. “We will be doubling, tripling our efforts.”
TREESAVERS HEADED TO COURT — In their continued efforts to save the ficus trees, Treesavers is headed to court — again.
At 10 a.m. Thursday, February 28th, a court hearing is scheduled at the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse for an injunction.
Attorney Tom Nitti, who has volunteered his services to Treesavers, is representing the group.
In October, Nitti was able to obtain a temporary restraining order against the city, banning it from removing ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets that were of no danger to the public.
But Treesavers withdrew the case after the groups of ficus trees were protected by landmark applications filed in October, and they vowed to go back to court if necessary.
Now they are back — and Nitti is confident that they will, once again, be successful.
“We will argue that the city did not follow the proper procedures under the California Environmental Quality Act [CEQA],” said Nitti, who is based in Santa Monica. “The city should have gone through an environmental review process for the trees and they didn’t. They just say they did; they haven’t produced a report.
“And the city is saying, ‘Even if we didn’t go through an environmental impact report (EIR), it’s too late for you to do anything about it’ — and I think that’s a rotten way to treat the citizens of Santa Monica.”
In the meantime, the city will not remove any of the ficus trees until the judge makes a ruling on February 28th.
Of the court hearing, Rubin says, “We always hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but Treesavers is never going to give up.”