The 54 ficus trees in downtown Santa Monica slated for removal as part of a streetscape improvement project have been saved — at least for the time being — after a Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the city, banning it from removing trees that are of no danger to the public.

Attorney Tom Nitti — who has volunteered his services to the Santa Monica Treesavers group that is fighting to save the mature ficus trees along Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard — obtained the restraining order in Los Angeles Superior Court Friday, October 5th.

“We argued 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. The judge felt that it would be appropriate to have a further hearing on our allegations, and in the meantime, he ordered that the trees [that are not dangerous] not be removed.”

While many tree lovers — including the Treesavers group — are relieved, local activist Jerry Rubin said, “It’s hard to be excited about a three-week stay of execution when what you really want is a full reprieve.”

The stay of execution — a court order to temporarily suspend an action of a governmental body — lasts until Friday, October 26th.

During this time, the city is prohibited “from removing or causing to be removed any and all ficus trees [excepting those trees that may be a danger to the public] on Second Street and Fourth Street in the City of Santa Monica as called for in its ‘Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvement Project’ or otherwise until further order of this court,” wrote Superior Court Judge John Shook.

The City of Santa Monica is fully cooperating.

“We were given the authority to remove dangerous trees,” says Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager for community relations. “In the abundance of caution, we are not removing any trees and we’re honoring the direction of the court and will appear before the judge and make our case in court on October 26th.”

The restraining order comes over a month after the Santa Monica City Council approved a Second and Fourth Streets Pedestrian and Streetscape Improvements Project that called for the removal of 54 ficus trees and 21 palm trees.

Councilman Kevin McKeown cast the lone vote against the $8.2 million project, of which about $600,000 will go toward the removal and relocation or conversion to compost of the trees.

Other aspects of the streetscape improvements project include new pedestrian lighting to illuminate the sidewalk area, the addition of decorative uplighting to the trees, repair of sidewalk and curbs and the installation of curb extensions and new curb cuts, city officials said.

Of the 54 ficus trees set to be removed from Second and Fourth Streets, 23 were identified as “diseased” by the city and are to be converted to compost.

The other 31 — along with 21 palm trees — will be replanted elsewhere in the city.

But members of Treesavers, including Rubin and others, disagree that the 23 ficus trees are “diseased.”

“The whole diseased thing is a misrepresentation,” says attorney and activist Susan Hartley. “They’re not diseased; they’re healthy trees. I think the main reason the city wants to remove these trees is the design factor. They decided the ficus trees are out of fashion, so, ‘Let’s put in different trees and different patterns.'”

City manager Lamont Ewell says that the 23 ficus trees slated for removal and composting were evaluated and determined by the city’s urban forester, Walt Warriner, to suffer from internal decay, weakened root systems, poor canopy structure or damage to their canopies from oversized vehicles.

On September 21st, a “Notice of Intent to Remove Trees” was posted on the trees set to be removed.

The notice states that the “criteria for removal included but were not limited to internal decay, extensive root pruning, poor canopy structure, damaged canopies from oversized vehicles, design factors and too large for relocation.”

The notice also states that two ginkgo biloba trees will be planted in every removed ficus tree’s place.

Work was scheduled to begin approximately 14 days from the date of the notice, but now, with the restraining order, things are on hold until at least October 26th.

“On October 26th, there’s going to be another hearing, and at that hearing the judge will determine whether to extend the temporary restraining order into a preliminary injunction pending trialÖ or to dissolve it” and let the trees be removed, says Nitti.

Nitti points out that the trees could be saved in a number of ways — in court, by the trees being landmarked, which the Treesavers group is working to do, or by the councilmembers changing their minds.

“It would require one of the councilmembers on the prevailing side to reverse her or his vote and ask for reconsideration, then it would take four votes out of the full seven to change the decision,” McKeown said, pointing out that this could be a “difficult path.”

LANDMARK DESIGNATION APPLICATION — On Friday, October 5th, Rubin and the Treesavers group submitted a landmark designation application to declare the 140 ficus trees located within the public parkway between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard along Second and Fourth Streets a city landmark.

This would, essentially, save the trees from being cut down.

But the city has not accepted the application, Rubin says.

The application was “deemed to be lodged but not filed with the city subject to the determination whether multiple applications are required under the Landmark’s ordinance and other issues of landmark law interpretation,” said the city attorney’s office.

Rubin says, “This seems very unusual. I’ve never heard of any other application having been lodged and not filed. It seems to me something’s going on here that’s not right and that’s unfortunate.”

No matter what, Rubin says one thing is certain: “We are not giving up.”