Trees and the darker sideof a community's character
by Robert T. Nanninga
few years ago the City of Del Mar garnered considerable news coverage after it put in place protection for trees with a carefully worded addition to the municipal code. The purpose of the new policy was to encourage conservation of trees and the application of management techniques to create a healthy urban forest. Of special significance, and noted as such, were Torrey Pines, Monterey cypress, and all species of trees located within the Central Commercial zone and the environmentally sensitive overlay zone.
As expected, the well-meaning effort soon had neighbors fighting each other, residents fighting City Hall, and people on both sides of the fence fearing fines and litigation. The trees, some endangered species, became little more than pawns in the unfolding drama of NIMBY neighbors and the assumed right of an unobstructed view. More recently, Carlsbad has had its own flirtation with arbitrary tree policy, in response to negative publicity.
Joining the civic circus revolving around the call for view ordinances and forced tree removals is the City Of Encinitas. Having reached the midpoint of its Community Character Implementation process, with the release of the first draft of the Implementation program, residents are now commenting on the work of City Council's Community Character subcommittee. As a resident of Encinitas, and a dedicated environmentalist, I was naturally drawn to the section entitled View Obstruction from Trees.
Expecting the worse, I was not surprised to find an ordinance, if left unchanged from the draft form, that defines most trees as a public nuisance waiting to happen. Little more than a check list for neighborhood warfare, the ordinance has a potential to lock neighbors into a series of legal challenges over view rights and undesirable landscaping. The only clear winner resulting from the adoption of the Community Character view ordinance would be lawyers, and lawyers that play at arbitration.
My initial response to the contradictory and arbitrary policy is as follows.
First, and foremost, the people of Encinitas should question any ordinance that excludes the governing body that created it. In this case, the proposed view ordinance exempts trees located on City of Encinitas owned property. Second, the fact the nature of the ordinance requires the city to include languaging clearly stating the city is in no way liable for the results of the ordinance should cause concern to homeowners and civil libertarians.
With all due respects to the town of Tiburon, Encinitas is not Tiburon, and any view and/or tree ordinance should come from the residents of Encinitas, not verbatim from the Tiburon Municipal code. Considering many hours of staff time, public input, and council attention, one can only question the critical thinking skills of those involved when all the have to show for their efforts is the work of another city. Is it just me, or does anyone else see the irony in a community character process that merely adopts the character of another community?
Currently, the view ordinance defines any tree capable of reaching a height of over 35 feet at maturity as undesirable. It also provides a self-defeating loophole by defining Torrey pines, oaks, and eucalyptus (among others) as Protected Trees under the category of Heritage or Cultural significance. Completely ignoring the character of native species, there is no mention of biology, ecology, or environmental considerations. Also, the view ordinance fails to protect native species. As written, the current ordinance would discourage the planting of species that historically have given Southern California its character.
There is only one indigenous species of tree less than 35 feet at maturity, and even Toyon are subject to the ordinance as trees have been define by the proposed ordinance as: Any plant with the potential to obstruct views, including but not limited to trees, shrubs, hedges, grasses (bamboo and palms), and bushes. The phase but not limited to means that any landscaping can be the target of any NIMBY neighbor with an ax to grind.
Another glaring shortcoming of this divisive ordinance is no mention of how the construction of new buildings figures into the purposed view ordinance. In other words, someone can build in such a way as to obstruct a neighbors view, but is prohibited from planting a tree to block their own.
I suggest the Encinitas City Council remove the view ordinance from the Community Character Implementation Program until a comprehensive can be researched in full, and adopted at a later date.
Robert Nanninga is a free-lance writer, producer and environmental journalist. A native of Vista living in Leucadia, he Chairs San Diego ZPG, as well as representing coastal North County on the Green County Council.