Lays Roots for Tree Canopy Policy
By Anita Varghese
September 6 -- A long-delayed
policy to save trees on private land
may finally bear fruit after the Santa
Monica Planning Commission recommended
Wednesday that the City Council review
a range of possible conservation strategies.
The strategies include incentives for planting
new trees, disincentives for removing mature trees
and a $5,000 fine for removing trees on private
property without a permit – the same fine
as for removing a public tree.
“We will recommend to the City Council
that we should have a comprehensive private tree
canopy policy focused on preserving trees,”
said Commissioner Julia Lopez Dad. “We have
to limit the loss of trees that seems to going
“What we should be trying to do is retain
the canopy we have and add to it,” Lopez
Wednesday’s action comes eight years after
the council adopted a Community Forest Management
Plan in 1999 with policies focused on capturing
the benefits provided by the approximately 34,000
public trees in Santa Monica.
Staff has now researched a range of strategies
to promote the conservation of the tree canopy
provided by private trees in order to achieve
environmental and aesthetic benefits.
The objective of the City’s current policy
is to nurture, conserve and enhance public and
private tree canopies in Santa Monica that provide
a variety of community-wide benefits.
Benefits include reducing the heat island effect,
the runoff effect of rainfall and the use of water
for landscapes, as well as offsetting carbon dioxide
emissions, absorbing particulate matter from the
air and generally beautifying and greening neighborhoods.
“Fifty years ago, the City was not worried
about what the ficus trees were going to do in
their mature state,” said Community Forester
“Our modern urban forestry practice is
to figure out how big a tree will get. So sometimes,
native trees are not appropriate. It is not appropriate
to put a California sycamore in a three-foot wide
parkway nor is it appropriate to put an oak tree
Under current planning policies and procedures,
development project applicants are required to
include a site survey when applying for ministerial
or discretionary project approvals -- a survey
that must identify all existing trees on the project
In the case of discretionary projects, planning
staff provides the Planning Commission and the
Architectural Review Board with information regarding
the existing location and types of mature trees
on a proposed developed site.
In the case of ministerial projects, this information
is provided to ensure that new construction does
not damage trees that are to be retained.
Currently there are no regulations governing
the removal of trees on private property, except
for a landmarks ordinance.
On occasion, the Planning Commission and ARB
take into account existing private trees that
will be retained when land use issues are assessed.
The board members take into account whether the
trees provide a screen or buffer, add privacy
and are compatible with adjacent sites and neighborhoods.
In most instances however, existing trees are
removed as part of the development process, regardless
of whether a tree is significant in size or species
or provides environmental and aesthetic benefits,
with conditions imposed on the number and size
of replacement trees.
A landscape design which includes new trees is
considered during the review process. However,
there are currently no requirements that regulate
the replacement of any canopy that is lost during
“We see so much bamboo and mimosa in every
landscape plan that comes by us because they are
tall enough to block one building from another,”
said Commissioner Jay Johnson. “We wind
up with basically no meaningful trees, let alone
Planning regulations require that a minimum of
one tree be provided for every 1,200 square feet
of pavement accommodating vehicle traffic.
The landscaped areas for parking lots consist
of islands, peninsulas or medians distributed
throughout the paved area and are in addition
to the landscaped area required for building sites.
In multifamily residential districts, new development
projects are required to provide two canopy trees
in the unexcavated front yard setback and three
canopy trees in the unexcavated side yard setback.
As part of the current private development review
process, Warriner reviews plans to determine the
impact of the proposed project on existing street
Typically, this process involves a site inspection
by staff to verify site conditions as they are
shown on the plans and to determine the existence
or value of any significant trees on private property.
Based on the results of the site inspection,
a recommendation is made to preserve significant
private trees where applicable. However, the decision
to retain a tree is ultimately left to the property
On larger sites where a significant number of
private trees are being targeted for removal,
Warriner requests that the applicant submit an
arborist’s report indicating which trees
are worth retaining and which trees should be
That report is then compared to the subsequent
landscape plan to verify that there will be an
equal canopy replacement.
Warriner has conducted three separate surveys
of private tree policies in 35 California cities
and seven cities outside of California.
The focus of the various ordinances and policies
is to retain the general canopy, protect historically
significant trees or trees of a certain size or
species, maintaining the aesthetic value of a
particular district, and protecting trees during
The majority of the 42 cities surveyed have tree
policies that are tied to development and emphasize
retaining existing canopies.
While some communities loosely regulate their
canopies, those with a long history of tree conservation
provide strict enforcement. They include Calabasas,
San Marino, Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach and Thousand
Officials from responding cities indicated that
the most effective way to preserve tree canopies
is by educating the public and providing flexible
tools throughout the plan check and site inspection
One tool officials in other cities use is a tree
replacement ratio required as a condition of approval
where a development project results in canopy
“In developing a private tree canopy conservation
policy for Santa Monica, consideration should
be given to a proactive, flexible approach that
promotes tree stewardship throughout the community
and encourages creative design solutions when
construction may threaten existing trees,”
“A final policy and implementation plan
should have the commitment of the
City, residents, business owners,
developers and designers to work together
to achieve an overall city tree canopy
that contributes to quality of life
and well-being in the community.”