By Nick Diamantides
The December 7 Signal Hill City Council meeting took place in a packed Council Chamber. Many residents attended Monday night to express their concerns about how the City is managing its street trees and park trees. The discussion lasted more than two hours. Tempers flared and two residents stormed out of the meeting, but when it was over, the Council voted unanimously to approve a staff recommendation to consider the removal of four trees on Dawson Avenue.
The discussion revolved around residents’ requests to have the City remove view-blocking trees along Dawson Avenue and in Hilltop Park. Although the requests date back to February 1999, the Monday night discussion focused primarily on an August 30, 2009 petition signed by resident Sanford Simmons and several other residents. The petition asked the City to remove and replace all the trees on both sides of the 2200 block of Dawson Avenue and many of the trees in Hilltop Park.
“This request is unprecedented, since it involves the removal of dozens of public trees to enhance private views,” said City Manger Ken Farfsing.
In a more recent letter (dated December 5, 2010 and signed by 13 residents), Simmons noted that the trees on both sides of Dawson Avenue and in Hilltop Park (with the exception of the park’s palm trees) were planted to block the view of what was once an undeveloped, blighted area. Simmons stressed that the area is now developed with attractive homes and is no longer blighted, therefore it does not need to be hidden from view. He added that the homeowners on Dawson Avenue purchased their houses there primarily for the panoramic views that once existed and they were not given adequate notice that one day trees would grow to block their views.
In his approximately 15-minute presentation to the Council, Farfsing outlined the last 20 years of the hilltop development. He explained that during that time the City has required developers to enter into Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions (CC&Rs) that outline the rights and responsibilities of the property owners. “These CC&Rs also provide specific rights to the City of Signal Hill,” Farfsing said. “It is noteworthy that the CC&Rs for (the tracts that include the 2200 block of Dawson) expressly state that the City makes no claim, warranty or guarantee that the views from any residence will be preserved from the surrounding areas.”
Farfsing noted that in the August 2009 petition, the Signal Hill Parks and Recreation Commission and the Public Works department worked together to formulate a comprehensive policy to address the removal and replacement of street trees. “The Council adopted the policy with revisions on November 6, 2010,” Farfsing said. “Staff is currently working with the city attorney on finalizing the revisions requested by the City Council.”
Farfsing outlined some of the provisions of the street policy, explaining that it is designed to ensure the health of trees and prevent invasive tree roots from damaging sidewalks, streets and underground utilities and infrastructure. He added that the policy contains no language pertaining to how trees may impact views.
After Farfsing’s presentation, 11 people took the microphone. Seven of them spoke in favor of removing and replacing all the trees on the 2200 block of Dawson and some of the Hilltop Park trees. Four of the speakers opposed any tree removal. In addition, Mayor Edward Wilson read a letter written by Long Beach resident Gabrielle Weeks, who is chair of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Weeks strongly exhorted the Council to not remove any mature trees from city streets and parks.
Those who spoke in favor of removing and replacing the trees focused primarily on the fact that the main reason they had purchased their homes was to enjoy the panoramic views that once existed. “We want our views back– that’s all,” Simmons said. He noted that when he purchased his home, it cost much more than nearby attached townhouses, but now those same townhouses are worth $200,000 more than his home, because they still have a view, but tall trees are blocking the view from his home.
Lorraine Gilbert disagreed with Simmons’s conclusion. “I think there are issues more important than (view) issues,” she said. “Number one is air quality.” She explained that mature trees do much to mitigate air pollution. Others opposed to tree removal noted that trees provide shade, buffer noise and increase citywide property values.
Some of the speakers in favor of removing the trees countered that the thick canopy also blocks the views of police patrol officers and obscures some streetlights.
Simmons’s son Matt, who also requested the removal and replacement of the trees, said he was hoping for a win-win situation. He asked the Council to replace the tall trees with trees that could provide all the benefits, but not block the views.
After the public comment period was over, Councilman Mike Noll stressed that this City Council has always been sensitive to the needs and concerns of all city residents. “We have to focus on what is good for all the city,” he said. “We have to be consistent in whatever decision we make.” He explained that if the Council approved the removal and replacement of all the trees on the 2200 block of Dawson Avenue, residents on many other streets in the city would demand the same thing and the City does not have the time or resources to accommodate all those requests.
Other council members echoed Noll’s comments, but when Vice Mayor Larry Forester spoke, he was interrupted by Sanford Simmons and Laurey Lauer, who both brought up a verbal confrontation they had had with him a couple of months ago. Then, both Simmons and Lauer stormed out of the building.
Wilson concluded the discussion by saying it would be a costly mistake to pass an ordinance that addressed the impact of trees on views. “Cities have tried that and they have failed,” he noted.
In the end, the Council voted unanimously to direct staff to study the possibility of removing four trees on the 2200 block of Dawson Avenue because they were not in compliance with spacing requirements as spelled out in the recently adopted street-tree policy. The Council’s action made no mention of trees in Hilltop Park.
The next meeting of the City Council is scheduled for 7pm on Tuesday, Jan. 4 in the Council Chamber of Signal Hill City Hall.
By Nick Diamantides