Del Mar residents call for changes to tree ordinance


Following the toppling of a 75-foot-tall tree in Point Loma that killed two people last month, Del Mar residents are urging the city council to revisit its tree ordinance to help prevent such a tragedy in the north coastal city and maintain views.

The city’s current ordinance protects Torrey pines and Monterey cypresses unless they are found by a city arborist to be unhealthy or dying. Additionally, if a tree is within 12 feet of another unhealthy or dying tree, the city can provide a permit to remove them.

However, some residents fear unhealthy trees may not be the only risks.

Jayne Haines, a 25-year Del Mar resident, said years ago, a “huge, healthy” eucalyptus tree fell across her property.

“It didn’t look dead,” she said. “It just fell. ... What if a healthy tree has shallow roots and falls? If an arborist plays God and says it isn’t in danger of falling, and it does, are they liable for the damage and possible death of someone caught in its path?”

More recently, Haines said she has battled with a neighbor over a loss of views due to the neighbor’s overgrown pepper trees.

Del Mar does not require prior authorization to plant trees on private property unless development is proposed, said City Planner Matt Bator. Haines believes that rule should be changed, and neighbors of a proposed tree over a certain height should have a say on the matter.

“These plants are just as intrusive as walls,” she said. “I see story poles for those who want to raise roof lines, and the community has a chance to refute the potential loss of a view. Why aren’t the same rules enforced on someone who wants to plant a green wall?”

In the city’s ordinance, residents can apply for tree removal requests, with permits costing $250 and a notice of intent costing $50. Additionally, a Trees, Scenic Views and Sunlight (TSVS) application — which provides a process by which residents may seek city action to facilitate the restoration of scenic views of sunlight access as a result of vegetation growth from another property — costs $3,790.

Council member Terry Gaasterland, an environmental scientist who was elected in November, said she hopes the city reviews its tree ordinance in the next year. She said the city needs to find a balance between the good that trees do — including cleansing impurities from the air, providing privacy, sequestering carbon and providing a healthier environment — and the problems they can introduce, such as safety concerns and view obstructions.

Further, she said the city council should review the ordinance’s implementation, its enforcement and the fee structures residents must pay to challenge trees that have created safety or view loss issues.

“Perhaps in Del Mar we can find a way to balance tree trimming for safety and view maintenance with the planting of new trees and greenery in other places,” she said. “In further consideration, incentives for trees and greenery must be balanced in turn with incentives to re-use irrigation water and minimize run-off.”

Frank Stonebanks, a San Diego resident who lives near the border of Del Mar, shared concerns about a nearby private property with seven Torrey Pines trees, each between 50 and 70 feet tall. He claims the trees have never been maintained and could pose a “variety of risks,” including pine cones falling and injuring people or damaging cars.

He added that the branches of some of the trees grow over the top of the road and onto the other side, impeding street access.

“The city’s answer has been to trim them so cars can fit by,” he said.

But Stonebanks, who has been fighting the issue for more than two years with a coalition of residents, said his options are limited since he does not live in Del Mar. He said he’d like to see the tree law amended so people within a 500-foot boundary line of the city have the same rights as Del Mar residents.

“Right now, I — and hundreds of people behind this curtain of trees -- have no legal standing,” he said.

Mayor Dave Druker said the city has “very little degrees of freedom” to enforce tree maintenance on private property.

“We hope that neighbors can work with each other, and if there are any problem trees that they can work together to get those matters solved,” he said. “It’s a very difficult balance between maintaining an environment that has lots of vegetation and wanting it safe.”

Del Mar resident Bob Fried said he has tried to reach an understanding with a neighbor whose trees have blocked a significant portion of his ocean view.

However, he said attempts to work out the issue with the neighbor have, so far, been unsuccessful and he is now considering proposing professional mediation. If that fails, he said he would have to submit a TSVS application.

“Such a process would probably not be affordable for all residents,” Fried noted.

The mayor said trees have been a long-standing issue in the city, adding the city’s prior ordinance — which was updated nearly two decades ago — limited the protections of trees from six feet, rather than the current 12 feet. Further, city policy is that trees above 12 feet should be maintained once every three years by an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.

However, some residents have argued that rule is not properly enforced and believe violators should face consequences.

Druker said the council must find a balance for people wanting to have trees and people fearing trees for potential dangers or blocking views.

He added the city has “aggressively tried” to trim as many trees as possible in the public right-of-way.

“Obviously, the city is the biggest owner of trees,” he said. “The city takes very seriously maintaining the health of the trees and removing trees that are unhealthy.”

But Haines said the city needs to work better to remove dead or dangerous trees. She pointed to one above Camino Del Mar, just north of the Del Mar Plaza, that she believes is a hazard.

Druker noted trees can fall regardless of their health status, such as if they are not maintained. He added that it has not yet been confirmed why the tree in Point Loma fell.

“We do know it fell, and we do know it killed two people, and that’s terrible,” he said. “We don’t know all the other circumstances that are around that.”