Solana Beach council turns down tree carving for Coastal Rail Trail

Drawing by Andi MacLeod of Tim Richards’ sketch featuring a pelican with fish and kelp.

A Torrey pine stump along the Coastal Rail Trail will not be transformed into public art, following the Solana Beach City Council’s consensus to deny the project.

Sponsored by the Solana Beach Civic and Historical Society’s Seaweeders Garden Club, if approved, the wood carving would have been donated to the city. But that’s the primary reason council members decided not to move the project forward during the Oct. 14 meeting.

“Donated art is a problem, because people have a hard time saying ‘no,’” said Councilman Mike Nichols, who serves as a liaison to the city’s Public Arts Commission, along with Deputy Mayor David Zito. “To be on this commission, sometimes you have to say ‘no.’”

Nichols pointed to another donated piece that caused controversy in 2009. Also donated by Solana Beach residents, the Gull Sculpture now sits at Fletcher Cove.

“That thing just escalated and escalated,” Nichols recalled. “I’m kind of surprised we’re here talking about this, because in my memory, at the time it was like, ‘OK, we’re not doing donated art anymore.’”

The garden club had offered to cover the costs so local woodworking artist Tim Richards could turn the dead tree into lively art, the way he’s done in neighboring cities Del Mar and Encinitas.

An Encinitas resident, Richards recently carved a Torrey pine stump in Del Mar into the “Sunset Seat,” a wooden bench with an attached red-tailed hawk. In 2011, he carved his first public piece, turning a beetle-damaged Torrey pine into a tiki head statue at Swami’s Beach in Encinitas.

For Solana Beach, Richards’ sketch featured a pelican with fish and kelp.

As required for all public art, the design was presented to the Public Arts Commission, which unanimously approved the project on June 23.

“It’s a unique piece of art,” said Commissioner Steve Ostrow.

The proposal was available for a 30-day public review period that ended Aug. 11. Of the 32 comments the city received, 21 supported the project, 10 did not and one resident requested more information.

After the review period closed, additional concerns were raised about the process for public art and the historical precedent of limiting permanent public art of the Coastal Rail Trail. Because of these concerns, city staff met with Nichols and Zito before bringing the project before the full council. The liaisons shared these concerns and also pointed to problems associated with donated art.

Although staff shared the concerns with Seaweeders representatives, the group asked for a full council review.

Seaweeders president Sandy Parish considered the carving temporary art because it would probably last 10 years or less.

Mayor Lesa Heebner said, “Six or seven years is not temporary enough.”

“I think what’s happening in this room exemplifies why we have decided upon temporary art,” she said.

Still, several speakers, including Parish, said the carving would be a natural addition to the Coastal Rail Trail.

“There couldn’t be a more natural project than what we’re proposing, because we’re taking a historic tree that’s there and trying to make it into something that’s beautiful and reflective of our community,” Parish said.

“The PAC has reviewed this project and unanimously approved it,” noted Michele Stribling, another member of the Seaweeders. “That along with the majority of favorable public comments would indicate that the majority of Solana Beach citizens will enjoy this Torrey pine tree’s salvation.”

Some residents, however, spoke against the project and described it as “out-of-character” for the Coastal Rail Trail.

“It looks amateurish, in my opinion,” Bridget Augusta said. “It does not resonate the timeless beauty of the tree that it is supposed to honor.”

Instead of the proposed carving, Augusta and a few other residents requested a tree be planted in place of the stump.

“Planting a tree would be a far better tribute to the beautiful tree that once stood,” Kelly Harless said.

“It’s not special enough for the rail trail,” added Gerri Retman-Opper. “Plant the tree in the spot where the original tree was and call it a day.”

With help from the Civic and Historical Society, resident Jim Nelson pointed out that the city had replaced the dead Torrey pine on the Coastal Rail Trail.

“We have done that,” said Nelson, a member of the Civic and Historical Society. “If you walk by there, you will find that four trees have been planted.”

Shortly after the beetle-damaged Torrey pine was cut down in April, the city planted three 5-foot-tall Torrey pines. Not long after the plantings, the Civic and Historical Society contacted the city to discuss adding a more mature tree to replace the chopped 40-foot-tall Torrey pine.

The city and the Civic and Historical Society split the cost of the new Torrey pine, which was planted along the trail in May. At the time, the roughly 8-year-old tree stood 15 feet tall and weighed at least 3,000 pounds when it arrived in a 60-inch box.