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Old Sycamore Triggers Citywide Tree Ordinance
By Jorge Casuso
May 15, 2019 -- Worried it might be missing the forest for the tree, the Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday voted to allow a lone sycamore to remain while staff crafts a tree ordinance for the entire city.
The vote capped a four-hour meeting that included testimony from some 70 speakers who debated the merits of an 82-foot-tall tree that has shaded the property at 1122 California Avenue for nearly 100 years.
The owner of the property -- who recently bought it for his children -- appealed the Landmarks Commission's decision last year to designate the tree a historic landmark.
But the family agreed to ensure the tree remains standing for two years while the Council approves an ordinance to help determine which trees on private property are protected.
"I very much want to save special trees," said Coiuncilmember Kevin McKeown, who made the motion to draft the ordinance. "I want to see it protected."
But McKeown -- who said he has been on a 19-year mission to "save our trees with a tree ordinance" -- said a Landmark designation was the wrong "tool" to use.
"In trying to save this tree with a landmarks ordinance I feel like we're trying to fix a bicycle with a shovel," he said.
The Council then voted 4-2 to uphold the property owner's appeal.
The owner had appealed after the Landmarks Commission last May voted to designate the tree a landmark, finding that it had aesthetic value and was an established visual feature of the neighborhood.
Staff disagreed, finding the tree was not "rare or extraordinary" and met none of the six criteria used for landmark designation.
Stephanie Reich, the City's design and historicl preservation planner, noted that only four trees in the city have been designated landmarks, including the storied Moreton Bay Fig tree on the grounds of the Miramar Hotel.
The sycamore in question, she said, only "appears notable" among the smaller trees on the street but can be readily found across Santa Monica.
In fact, she said, in a ten-block stretch between Wilshire Boulevard and Montana Avenue, there are 94 similarly large and mature trees on the public right of way and 59 on private property.
Of the total, 29 are sycamores, she said.
The majority of the Council agreed with staff.
McKeown, who has lived in the neighborhood for 43 years, said he needed to look up the address to find the tree.
He then visited the tree on his bicycle 12 times "at different times of day and approaching from different directions."
"I never noticed this particular tree," he said.
Before the vote, City Manager Rick Cole cautioned the Council that the extensive process needed to draft a tree ordinance would take at least a year.
"It's a big undertaking to do this," he said.
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