By Nick Diamantides
A group of about 20 hilltop residents showed up at the Signal Hill Parks Commission meeting last Wednesday (Sept. 8th) to demand that the City cut back or remove the tall trees that are impacting their views. During the meeting, Department of Public Works Director Barbara Muñoz updated the Commission on the Master Street Tree Plan that the public works department is currently drafting.
Muñoz noted that the existing plan is about 10 years old and needs to be updated. The residents want the new plan to include provisions that protect views from trees that are too tall.
Muñoz explained that street trees are those that are planted in public rights-of-way, and there are about 3,600 of them, consisting of 70 different species, in the city. She noted that 71 percent of them are in good health.
Muñoz also explained that, according to City policy, public works will consider removing a tree if one or more of the following criteria exist: the tree is dead, diseased, or severely declining; the tree is poorly structured, making it potentially hazardous; it is a seedling or “volunteer growth;” the tree blocks ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access or utilities, or obstructs signs; or the tree is severely damaging adjacent hardscape or utilities.
The residents who spoke at the meeting want another criterion to be added to that list– the tree is impairing the view once enjoyed from a nearby residence. Muñoz and other City officials do not want view impairment to be listed as a criterion for tree removal because of the subjective nature of what constitutes a view and complex legal issues that can spring from a city’s binding itself to protect private views.
Alan MacKnight, who lives near Panorama Trail, commended public works staff for the work they had done on the Master Street Tree Plan. He insisted, however, that in the 1990s City policy was to not plant trees that would exceed 12 feet in height and would impair the views of residents who lived uphill from the trees. He added that trees planted in the ‘90s are now so tall that they are severely impacting the views of residences on the hill. “The value of that view property is reduced, and indirectly the City’s revenues will be impacted by that,” he said. “My strong recommendation is that you consider modifying the plan for specific areas where views are important.” MacKnight also recommended that the City remove trees that impact views and replace them with trees that do not grow to such heights.
Sanford Simmons, who lives in Promontory Crest, agreed with MacKnight. He added that being able to enjoy the magnificent view was the main reason most people purchased homes on the hill. “I would like to be able to see the view that we used to be able to see,” he said. “The city does not allow residents to build fences that would impair their neighbors’ views, so why should the city be able to plant trees that block views?”
Local realtor Matt Simmons (son of Sanford), who also lives on the hill, told the commission that view homes have always sold for more than homes in the interior of the same neighborhoods. “We are here because we have lost our views and our property values have been lowered,” he said, adding that he is angry that tree removal criteria do not include trees that impact views.
Commissioner Ken Davis, who is also a realtor, said he understands the concerns of the residents who spoke at the meeting and he is empathetic, but he noted that the issue of tree removal is very complex. “We have residents who walk through the city and love the tall trees and do not want them removed,” he said. “We have to make sure we are treating everybody in the city equally.”
Davis added that he agrees that appropriate-sized trees should be planted in certain areas, but coming up with a city policy to accomplish that task and taking on all the legal ramifications of such a policy is not something most cities are prepared to do. He explained that it is extremely difficult to determine what is a primary view (worthy of protection) and what is not.
Commissioner Denise Damrow, who is an attorney, echoed Davis’s remarks. She added that, from a legal standpoint, the city is not required to protect residents’ views from trees that have increased in height.
Muñoz noted that, while the Draft Street Tree Policy does not list view protection as a criterion, it does allow City staff to evaluate a request from a property owner for the removal of a tree adjacent to his or her property. “I believe the new Street Tree Policy would be helpful in resolving some street-tree removal requests,” Muñoz said. “The new policy will now allow city staff to evaluate a tree removal request beyond our typical removal criteria. Obviously, we will not please everyone, especially owners who want to remove all the trees on both sides of a street and several trees within an adjacent park.”
Muñoz added that the Master Street Tree Plan, which includes the Street Tree Policy, will likely be presented to the Signal Hill City Council for approval sometime in October.