By Richard Agee
It was several years back when I got up one morning, drove to the corner of my street, turned left onto Santa Barbara Street, and saw something I had never seen before.
All of the tall palm trees along Santa Barbara Street had been spray-painted with white X’s. As I drove slowly looking at the trees for several blocks, yes, every tree was marked with a white X. I made a U-turn and drove back past my street and several blocks in the other direction and saw white X’s on every palm tree. Something is going on here, I thought to myself. Usually a white X means a tree is going to be removed. Why would they remove all the trees that have been part of the fabric of the community for so long?
Many years ago, San Diego business magnate John D. Spreckels arranged to have palm trees planted along the city owned right of way on some of the main thoroughfares around Point Loma and Ocean Beach. Those mature tall palms now grace streets like Newport Avenue, Santa Barbara Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. They form a historic landmark, cherished by locals, which can be seen for miles.
I never got to my destination that morning. I ended up coming back home and calling my then-City Councilmember, Byron Wear. He returned my call and I described what I had just seen. He said he would place a call immediately to the city to find out what was going on.
Some time later, after seeing the white X’s on the trees for himself, he called me back and seemed somewhat disturbed to find out the city was planning to cut down all the classic old palm trees.
Apparently, the trees were in violation of a regulation that specified the minimum distance between a tree and a power line. At that time, the power lines were on utility poles along Santa Barbara Street, but the city was already planning to put those power lines underground.
Now knowing this, council members and city officials came out to see the trees. They voted to allocate money to place the power lines underground early, rather than cut own every tall palm tree on Santa Barbara Street.
Because of the City Council’s involvement, the trees remain today. Those trees have stood proud and tall for years.
And then, a few years later…
It was late December 2004 as I drove down Santa Barbara Street approaching Newport Avenue. All of the tall palm trees between Niagara and Newport had white X’s on hem, about twenty of them.
The utility poles were still there, but they held only phone and cable lines, the power lines had already been placed underground. The phone and cable lines were soon to be undergrounded as well.
I returned home and called the office of City Councilmember Michael Zucchet to ask about the trees. Mr. Zucchet’s secretary said she would get back to me, but never did. I figured that the trees would be safe until after the New Year. Was I wrong!
On New Years Eve, December 31, 2004- at about 8 AM, I decided to drive to Ocean Beach. As I drove down Santa Barbara Street, I was shocked by what I saw. Two tree trimming trucks were parked next to the palm trees at Santa Barbara and Niagara. Chain saws were going full speed.
I parked, got out and started waving my arms and yelling. One of the workers yelled “Yahoo!” as he sawed the top off one of the trees and it fell to the ground. Another worker echoed “Yahoo!” as he removed the top of a second tree.
Another truck pulled up; a gentleman got out and came to where I was standing. After exchanging words, I refused to move my truck and the police were called. He yelled something in Spanish to the workers and they resumed cutting.
Within a few minutes, several police cars arrived. Neighbors were coming out of their houses and asking why their palm trees were being cut down?
One of the neighbors called the Chairperson of the Peninsula Community Planning Board, who immediately came to the scene. She stated to the police that the planning board was to be notified before any trees could be removed, and that the board had not been notified, making the tree removal illegal.
She asked to see the permits to remove the trees – they had nothing to show her. By then, two news crews had arrived with cameras. The police seemed uncomfortable with the gathering mob and news reporters, and they ordered the tree removal to be stopped.
City of San Diego Council Policy 200-05 states the criteria for removing a tree from the public right-of-way. These palm trees did not qualify under any of those criteria. According to the Urban Forestry Maintenance webpage, “The tree (suggested for removal) will be included on a list of proposed street tree removals, which is sent monthly to the City Council, Community Forest Advisory Board and all Community Planning Groups. If no objection to the proposed removal is received, the tree will be removed by City contractors.” Clearly, this did not happen. Why not?
The following Monday, I called Councilmember Michael Zucchet’s office, demanding to know what was taking place. The secretary told me that Mr. Zucchet was unavailable, that he was in court. She gave me the name of a gentleman who could answer my questions. His name was Drew Potocki.
When I got Mr. Potocki on the phone, I asked him why he was cutting down these tall palms on that block of Santa Barbara Street. He replied that a resident had complained about palm fronds falling on the sidewalk and in her yard. I said, “Let me get this straight. After all the community went through years ago to preserve these beautiful palms, you’re chopping them down because palm fronds are falling on the sidewalk and in somebody’s front yard? Is that right?” He responded that sometimes a couple land on her roof.
I then asked Mr. Potocki why the trees across the street were marked to be cut down. After a long silence, he told me that if the wind is blowing from the east, a frond might fly across the street and fall in her yard, so she wants those taken out also. When I asked him who gave the authority to remove the trees, Mr. Potocki said, “Well, I am doing it.” He revealed that he had not notified the planning board, but he was planning to replace the palms with magnolias. He said the cutting would resume.
I called Councilmember Michael Zucchet’s office and was told that he would try to make a decision soon. Mr. Zucchet dragged it out for several days and apparently could not decide what to do about the trees. I became desperate waiting for Mr. Zucchet’s decision.
Several years earlier, I had been introduced to an influential gentleman named Hugh Story of the Point Loma Association. The Point Loma Association has been actively involved with beautification efforts around Point Loma and Ocean Beach for years.
I pondered whether to call Mr. Story and ask his advice, or if he would remember me at all. Out of desperation, I called Mr. Story. He remembered me and asked what he could do for me. I told him the situation with the palm trees, and he asked for Mr. Zucchet’s number. About ten minutes later, Mr. Story called me back and reassured me that no more tall palm trees would be cut down in Point Loma or Ocean Beach.
A few minutes later, Michael Zucchet’s secretary called me and confirmed that Mr. Zucchet had made a decision and the trees would remain, and that he would issue a press release the next day.
The “official” version of this incident was reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune on January 4, 2005. (See link below to that article under References.)
The trees were safe once again, except for three beautiful trees that had been removed on the west side of Santa Barbara between Newport and Niagara. The cement patches are clearly visible where these trees once stood. The trees were never replaced.
After all was said and done, I called a city official to ask about the incident. He responded that the palms were being cut down, simply because one resident had complained that the fronds were falling in her yard and on the sidewalk. I asked why Mr. Potocki would circumvent the planning board and take it upon himself to cut down twenty beautiful palm trees for such a ridiculous reason? He told me that the resident had threatened to sue the city and have Mr. Potocki fired if he did not do what she wanted. Mr. Potocki knew that if he went before the planning board, they would never approve the removal of those trees, so he took it upon himself to bypass the planning board, order the trees to be cut down, and hopefully there would be no problem. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Drew Potocki was recently called to defend his job against budget cuts before the city council. He reportedly told the council, “I was hired to be the person to speak for the trees” and likened himself to the Lorax (a tree-loving Dr. Seuss character). But, I have come to believe he is no friend to trees in this community.
The next time you walk or drive down Santa Barbara Street between Orchard Street and Newport Avenue, imagine it with no palm trees at all. Most of those stately palm trees still grace Santa Barbara Street today, except for the cement patches that remind us of the majestic tall palms that stood until New Years Eve 2004.
Now in 2010, another historic tree has been marked with a white X, slated for Drew Potocki’s chainsaw crew. This time, it is a landmark Torrey Pine tree on Long Branch Avenue that has stood since the 1930s. All Torrey Pine trees in San Diego are protected by law from destruction or injury, in addition to the usual requirement for the planning board to be notified before removal of any tree. Again, this tree was slated for removal without notifying the planning board. As a result of intervention by a group of local activists, this issue will be reviewed at an upcoming meeting of the Ocean Beach Planning Board.
San Diego Municipal Code states the following:
§63.07 Destruction, Injury of Torrey Pines Trees — Prohibited
That it shall be unlawful for any person or persons to cut, injure or destroy any trees known as the “Pinus Torreyana” growing upon Pueblo Lots Nos. 1332, 1337 and 1338 or any other public lots or lands, belonging to and within the corporate limits of the City of San Diego.
Considering these actions, past and present, can we trust Mr. Potocki with the well being of our historic trees? Citizens must be diligent to ensure that our city government and its contractors follow the law. Because once a tree is removed, it is gone forever.
Urban Forestry Maintenance Webpage
San Diego Municipal Code 63.07 (see page 3)