Safety concerns prompt removal of mature Torrey pine


By Claire Harlin

Staff Writer

A 60-foot-tall Torrey pine tree that has stood between Hidden Pines Road and Torrey Pines Terrace for decades will soon be removed, after the Del Mar City Council voted on Sept. 23 to uphold the city planning department’s July approval of a tree removal permit.

The three-foot-wide tree is situated atop a steep sandstone bluff that towers at least 30 feet above applicant Judd Halenza’s home, which he recently purchased to demolish and construct a new two-story home. The pine traverses the property line, its canopy spanning across and providing shade and distinction for both Halenza’s property and that of its southward neighbors, Gary and Michele Burke. The council’s consideration was in response to an appeal submitted Aug. 12 by the Burkes, who stated other alternatives should be considered because the tree is healthy and does not pose a threat.

“The Burkes are disappointed,” said Solana Beach lawyer Wayne Brechtel, who represented them in their appeal. “That tree is a key part of their home and the surrounding community. The concern is the stability of the bluff, but the tree itself is doing just fine.”

Halenza’s tree removal permit application included a report from arborist Jim Thompson, who inspected the tree in May and recommended its “immediate and without hesitation removal.”

He concluded that approximately half of the tree’s “root growing area dripline soil plane mass” has fallen away leaving no horizontal rooting area for its long-term anchorage and stabilization. He said there is a cave running vertically for many feet under the tree, and a large root growing vertically. He also pointed out previous slope failures, as detailed by the property’s previous owner, Jay Wentz. Being a “massive, well-limbed, heavily-weighted tree” adds to the danger, he noted.

“To not act immediately,” he stated, “I would consider this a highly negligent act should this tree’s failure occur, damaging property and/or killing any person(s).”

The Burks retained the services of certified arborist Mark Wisniewski, who disagreed with the applicant’s arborist, stating that roots that are vertically directed are actually less susceptible to failure.

“This tree exhibits a root growth habitat similar to numerous other native Torrey pines in the area that grow at or near the top of sandstone cliffs,” Wisniewski stated, concluding that the tree “is not in imminent danger.” He also said neighboring homes are far enough away that they may not be damaged if the tree were to fail.

To preserve the “unique, village-like atmosphere of the City,” including natural vegetation and trees, as outlined under the City of Del Mar Community Plan, Wisniewski suggested that alternatives to tree removal be considered. He outlined pruning, annual evaluations and implementation of a retaining wall as possible options.

Larry Holmes, an arborist retained by the City, submitted a report on Sept. 15 that summarized his inspection of the tree. In it, he agreed that the tree and surrounding soil do not appear to show significant signs of immediate failure and that the existing and proposed homes may be located at a distance that could spare them from major damage if the tree were to fail.

However, Holmes stated “people or property in the yard area below the tree would be at significant risk were the tree to fail and topple down the slope.”

Holmes recommended that the applicant either “fence off the area a safe distance from the tree or remove the tree.”

Adam Birnbaum, the City’s planning manager, said fencing off the area and creating unused space would be undesirable.

Councilman Mark Filanc distributed to the council a Sept. 16 Orange County Register article about a 10-ton tree that crushed a car and killed the driver in Newport Beach, prompting a city inspection of hundreds of similar trees.