Two appeals to stop the removal of a large tree at 650 Georgian Road were denied at a recent La Cañada Flintridge Planning Commission meeting that included a larger discussion about what can be done in the future to save city-protected coast live oaks.
Planning Commission Chair Rick Gunter said after the 4-0 vote last Thursday that those who want to appeal the decision further had 15 days in which to bring the matter before the City Council. Commissioner Mike Hazen was absent.
“I encourage you to communicate with the City Council,” Gunter said. “If there’s something within the zoning ordinance that you think needs to get changed, I encourage you to meet with your representatives and see if you can get a change.”
The saga began after the city’s planning department received a request for a tree-removal permit from property owner Alan Frank in early October and approved it on Nov. 2. The city ruled that the tree was so diseased or damaged that it was “no longer viable or is a threat to cause damage to property or other protected trees.”
According to a city report, oak trees that have a diameter of 12 inches or more are protected. The report said the Georgian Road tree is 72 inches in diameter “at breast height.”
On Oct. 2, according to the approval notice, the city received an arborist report from McKinley & Associates with an application that evaluated three protected trees on the property.
Certified arborist James R. Smith additionally submitted a letter on Oct. 1 in which he concurred with the report from William McKinley of the American Society of Consulting Arborists. Frank hired both arborists.
A second coast live oak and a California sycamore on the property were assessed and identified as “relatively healthy and worth preserving.”
According to the approval notice, “the arborist explains that the subject oak tree is hazardous, in declining health (stressed and dying) and represents an unreasonable risk of injury.”
On Oct. 24, a site visit by a city staffer confirmed the location and condition of the protected tree, according to the notice, and Frank’s request to remove it was granted a few days later. But two appeals were quickly filed by LCF residents.
A staff report recommending that the commission deny the appeals at Thursday’s meeting stated that “based on arborist report and site inspection, it was determined that the subject oak is unhealthy and the likelihood of the tree failing is probable.”
Before the vote, the commission heard from Beth Fabinsky and Edward Johnson on why the appeals should not be denied. They filed the appeals.
Fabinsky filed her appeal because, she said, there was no special protection for what were formerly called heritage oak trees. Though the commission’s Gunter said the Georgian Road tree’s age is unclear, Fabinsky noted that a recent news article claimed the oak was alive before the U.S. Constitution was written. “In this case, my appeal is to recommend the owner get additional opinions,” Fabinsky said. “One or two from conservation-minded consulting arborists.”
Johnson said he walks by the tree with his wife almost every day.
The oak tree is a community treasure that has been around for more than 400 years, Johnson asserted in his appeal, and said at the meeting the previous owner, who lived at the residence for 60 years, would have wanted the tree protected.
“The community’s desire to preserve a community treasure should override the property owner’s right to use the property as they wish,” Johnson said.
“We call ourselves a tree city, but there are almost certainly fewer than a dozen trees of this age within the city boundaries. Probably far fewer because a devastating fire swept through here in the 1880s.”
Johnson said he read the arborist report several times but felt the city should ask a different arborist to come back with a set of recommendations on preserving and extending the life of the tree for another 40 or 50 years.
Susan Koleda, the city’s director of community development, told The Outlook in an earlier interview that municipal staff members are required to conduct a site inspection for every request for a tree removal permit. Most of the time, she said, an arborist report is required to justify tree removal based on safety and health factors.
Tiprin Follett, who spoke in favor of the appeals, said last week she was “heartbroken” about the commission’s decision.
“The only thing that was good was there was so many people,” Follett said. “I’d love to change the law to truly protect the trees. I’d love for them to build a dream home but build around the trees so you don’t lose the landscape. I do not want trees cut down. I think they belong to the community, they don’t belong to the individual homeowners.”
Follett added that she doesn’t know what else to do.
Resident Patricia Blanche, who objected to the tree’s removal months before the meeting and believes there is a bigger issue regarding the felling of trees in the city, said she was saddened by the decision.
“As this process has made clear, the future of these stately trees depends almost entirely on the will of the homeowner, and their capacity for stewardship,” Blanche told The Outlook in an email.
Blanche said that if a homeowner is willing to protect them, trees can often be stabilized and continue to be enjoyed by future generations.
“If, however, homeowners allege a safety issue and seek to have a tree removed, then it likely spells doom for the tree,” Blanche said. “The city is simply not going to place itself in the position of potentially accepting the liability of preventing the removal.”
Blanche added the city’s current process leaves residents without any kind of “meaningful or enforceable tree protection ordinance” for anything other than flawless specimens, an “exceedingly rare thing” for oaks of advanced age and size.
Although the commission sided with Frank, he said after the meeting he was not celebrating the decision.
“It’s sad,” Frank said. “It’s sort of a fact of life and you got to do what you got to do to protect your property and protect your family, and sometimes those aren’t happy things.”
On Wednesday, Koleda, noting that City Hall was closed for several days after the commission meeting, said by email that no appeal had been received.
“If an appeal of the Planning Commission decision is filed, staff will determine the City Council hearing date and notify the applicants/appellant and perform the standard noticing,” Koleda said.