Encinitas residents oppose cutting four ficus trees

The meeting was billed as an effort to gather citizens’ ideas about the size and type of trees that should be planted in place of stately ficus trees in downtown Encinitas, including four trees slated for removal within the next few weeks.

But many in the audience of more than 50 people instead focused on their desire to save the four doomed ficus trees — two each on Second and Third streets — as well as about 50 more of the ficuses that shade downtown streets and sidewalks with their green leafy canopies.

“Please, please don’t cut them down,” said Jan Kalish, one of more than a dozen people who spoke at the meeting, which was called by Encinitas city officials and held Sept. 6 at City Hall.

Former Encinitas mayor and council member Sheila Cameron presented petitions with a total of more than 200 signatures calling for the trees to be preserved. If necessary, she said, citizens could collect money to pay for legal help and seek a court injunction to block the trees’ removal.

She echoed concerns expressed by a number of people in the crowd when she said, “Prune the damn trees. It’s very clear that’s all they need,” triggering a round of applause.

The decision to remove the trees, said some in the crowd, is at odds with Encinitas’ designation as a “Tree City USA” by the national Arbor Day Foundation.

But city officials were just as adamant that the four ficus trees in question, two in the 600 block of Third Street and two in the 1000 block of Second Street, must be removed because they pose safety risks and potential legal liability to the city.

They showed photos of the trees, highlighting fissures they said could lead to large limbs breaking off and causing property damage or injury. Risk assessments conducted by city consultants determined all four of the trees pose moderate to high safety risks.

“It can snap at any moment,” Mike Palat, an arborist and city consultant, said of the damaged tree limbs.

Owners of property next to where the trees stand on city land between sidewalk and curb asked the city to remove the trees, and legal action has been threatened, said Jim O’Grady, interim assistant city manager, who led the meeting. Therefore, he said, the City Council voted unanimously, in a closed session held in August, to order the removal of the four trees.

“We don’t take these things lightly. We love the trees,” said Glenn Pruim, city director of Public Works, the department charged with maintaining the city’s inventory of some 10,000 street trees. But, he added, “Not every tree can be saved every time.”

One couple, who declined to give their names, said they own a rental property next to the trees slated for removal on Third Street. The woman said she and her husband have spent about $20,000 to fix damage caused by the decades-old ficus trees, including replacement of a hardwood floor damaged by termites that flourish in the trees’ roots beneath their home.

The trees are “beautiful,” she said, “but they’ve gotten out of hand.”

“We’re not tree killers,” she added.

The couple’s biggest concern, said the man, is that large limbs that hang over their home’s roof will break, posing a danger to the people who live there.

To that, someone in the crowd shouted, “Why are humans so important?”

O’Grady and Pruim said after the meeting that the four trees will be removed in the next two to three weeks, and signs will be posted with the specific time frame.

When the conversation did turn to potential replacements for removed trees, at a point when many in the audience had left, such varieties as sweet bay, strawberry trees, Brisbane box, Chinese tallow, jacaranda and firewheel were mentioned.

Audience members said the replacement trees should have a large canopy (the ficus trees have canopies of 30 to 40 feet in height and diameter), be evergreen, not have invasive roots, be as large as possible, and be both drought and disease resistant.

The city’s goal is to prepare a tree replacement plan for City Council approval.

O’Grady stressed that city staff is neither planning nor recommending the removal of all of the 50 or so downtown ficus trees, but rather anticipating when the trees might need to be removed in the future due to safety issues or root damage.

“I want to be very clear about that,” he said.

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