The saving of just one Torrey Pine, Part Two

by on December 6, 2010 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, Environment, Ocean Beach, Organizing, San Diego

The Torrey Pine - 4633 Saratoga - looking west. All photos by Richard Agee.

More on the continuing saga of trying to save the Torrey Pine tree on the 4600 block of Long Branch Avenue.

In Part One, we covered the endangered and special nature of Torrey Pine trees, the  history of efforts to preserve them in San Diego County – the only continental location of their existence – and how Ocean Beach ended up with a “strand” of Torrey Pines, and finally a list of proper pruning methods.

The Torrey Pine tree at 4633 Long Branch

Now, let’s focus on the tree at 4633 Long Branch Avenue.

We are assuming this Torrey Pine – which does dominate the east end of the block with its bountiful foliage – was planted during the Thirties as an extra tree from the Torrey Pine nursery on the 4600 block of Saratoga Avenue  that David Cobb managed back in the Thirties.  The Cobbs apparently had a plot with 250 feet of frontage on that block and managed the nursery for a failed WPA project to plant Torrey Pines along Catalina Boulevard.

In what was originally a hand-written letter from Stanley Cobb – the Cobbs’ son – to William Brennan – another longtime resident of that block in 1993, described how Ocean Beach obtained its Torrey Pines:

In Ocean Beach, several streets had their trees or bushes such as Cape May & Brighton had Oleanders, etc. Saratoga avenue, up from Sunset Cliffs Blvd., had nothing. So I believe my mother was instrumental in getting that accomplished, as dad had a few extra trees. They were spaced on both sides of the street with adequate watering basins, to be periodically watered with City trucks. Injury and carelessness eliminated over half of them. The few which survived have raised havoc with sidewalks, streets and even branches crashing into homes. I’m sure a few are the worlds largest. They are fed by an underground river of water (capped by the street) by every home up hill who waters a lawn or garden. …

[signed] Stanley R. Cobb (8-18-20)

Stanley Cobb, who lived at 4630 Saratoga, passed away a month after he wrote this letter to Brennan, a resident on that block of Saratoga since 1937.

So, we’re assuming our Long Branch Torrey Pine came from the Cobbs’ nursery – and it’s a valid assumption because of  its size and height – it mirrors those on Saratoga Avenue – just 3 blocks away.  So that makes the tree closer to 75-80 years of age (not the “40 year old” quoted by certain media and city personnel).

If you are ever on that Long Branch block, you immediately notice two things about this tree: the height and canopy of its foliage, and the fact that it appears to “lean”.  Whether it does in fact “lean” or whether it grows at a slant is still an issue, but you do notice the main trunk is not straight.

And if you are walking on the sidewalk nearby, you notice something else: the sidewalk has buckled and cracked, and a small private retaining wall has also cracked.

And this is why this Torrey Pine tree gets the City’s attention.

The City’s Chronology of Events

The City says it first took notice of this Torrey Pine in late August of 2007.  This is reported in a “chronology of events” for 4633 Long Branch, drawn up by Drew Potocki’s – the City’s urban forester – in a report he handled members of the Ocean Beach Planning Board last Wednesday, December 1.

Now, it’s hard to believe that this is the very first time the City has noticed this tree. It may be the first time this generation of City employees and managers have noticed this tree, but not the City in general. The sidewalk, I’m sure, has been repaired several times over the decades by somebody in the City. And large cities like San Diego do at times experience a failure of a “collective memory”. (This happened, for example, when the entire City of San Diego back in the bustling 1980s, totally “forgot” that there had been an industrial and toxic waste dump over in south Mission Bay next to where SeaWorld is now – but that’s another story.)

But nevertheless, the City began taking a record of this Torrey Pine about 3 years ago, when it received a citizen’s complaint on Nov. 30, 2007, about “a hazardous sidewalk/ tree condition” by way of the Street Division’s internet site.  A temporary asphalt patch was applied to address the tripping hazard, as funds were not available for a more permanent repair.

Fast forward three years … to August 10, 2010.  The City reports that a citizen asked a Street Division crew in the area to “do something about this leaning tree.”  Photos of the tree were taken and sent to an arborist by the name of Micah Millet who works for the City as a public works supervisor so he could evaluate the tree.

In Drew Potocki’s report, he states that on August 19th,:

Millet examined the tree and reported that it is not currently unstable, but will become unstable when the sidewalk hazard is repaired, so removal is recommended.” (Our emphasis.)

Let’s look at this statement for a moment. Millet says the tree “is not currently unstable” – which is a backhanded way of saying the tree is currently stable.  But when the sidewalk hazard is repaired, he says, the tree will then become “unstable” so he recommends its removal – now. We’ll come back to this issue, but how about if the sidewalk is repaired so nothing happens to the tree or its roots? Then it would not have to be removed. The City accomplished this diligence over on 4600 Saratoga Avenue with the Torrey Pines there. Check out those sidewalk repairs.

Now, Millet is referred to again in another document from the City, entitled “Requested Opinions of Certified Arborists regarding the condition of the Torrey Pine Tree at 4633 Long Branch Ave”. Both this document and Potocki’s one page Chronology were turned into the Planning Board by Potocki, but it’s not clear who wrote what or if he wrote both or just one of them.

At any rate, Millet is quoted, as saying: “Bad news. The … tree … is leaning and potentially hazardous.” He is again cited as recommending its removal. But clearly, the statement or recommendations attributed to him contradict themselves. In the first, he says the tree is stable now only to be become unstable and a hazard if the sidewalk is repaired . In the second he says it’s potentially hazardous now, and there’s no mention of the sidewalk repair making it unstable.

Back to the City’s Chronology.  On September 27th, the tree and the sidewalk were surveyed by the City – as apparently money for sidewalk replacement had been made available, and were marked for removal and replacement.   This must have been with two large white “X’s” were painted on its bark.  The chronology also reports:

This contract will advertise for bids and is expected to be awarded and start construction in April of 2011.

And then on November 1st, things started popping. The City reports that a citizen called the Street Division maintenance line to say that the tree “appears to have moved during the recent rain/wind storm and is leaning even more than before.”  The tree’s stability and safety needed to be evaluated so City arborist Drew Potocki was called in for another consult.

On that same day, a citizen called Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s office “to protest the removal of the tree.” The City decided to obtain “additional opinions from other arborists”.

This was around the time that local activist Richard Agee contacted the OB Rag to express his concerns about the tree’s potential pending removal.  We posted an article about the tree the next day.  And we have been posting about the Torrey Pine on Long Branch ever since.

The Community Responds

Richard Agee is a local Point Loma and OB activist. He has a proven track-record of saving trees as he was involved big time in saving rows of Palm Trees up on Santa Barbara Street.

He called us and said he believed the City was about to cut down the Torrey Pine on Long Branch. I didn’t believe him at first, but then we saw the giant white “X’s” on it.  The mark of death.

Yet, I couldn’t believe it. I had lived on that very block for over five years until a little over a year ago. I knew it leaned, and yes, the sidewalk was cracked, but that tree wasn’t going anywhere. The only drawback to the tree was its sap, which drips on the vehicles that park below it.  The roof of my PT Cruiser still had markings that never seemed to go away. I didn’t really blame the tree, it’s just a fact of life.  Nature is messy.

Agee sent me the hand-written letter from Stanley Cobb about his dad’s Torrey Pine nursery on the 4600 block of Saratoga which describes the history of OB’s giants, and we reprinted it.

Also, Agee brought my attention to the fact that San Diego Municipal Code protects Torrey Pines.  We as a City treasures them so much that there is a law against their injury or destruction. Here is what it says:

§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.

On November 10th, I finally called Drew Potocki, the urban forester for the City. A couple of good friends who worked for the City had nothing but praise for him.  So, I rang him up to get the City’s reasons for wanting to mess with this Texas-sized tree.  Our conversation and subsequent agreement was the subject of a post that day.  I wrote:

Potocki … claimed that the Torrey Pine’s roots are so damaged and weak that most of the foliage on the north side of the tree has to be cut.  … Potocki says that the trimming must occur in order to save the tree and prevent any damage to people and property below. …

Potocki claims he has 3 independent opinions from experts who say the tree must be cut down.

At that point, Potocki himself did not say that the Torrey had to be chopped down.  His preference – at least to me on the phone that day – was to drastically trim most of the foliage on the north (street) side of the tree. He also never mentioned the issue of the tree encroaching into the street.

I did get Potocki to agree that the City would not do anything to the tree until the issue of its trimming or removal had been brought to the Ocean Beach Planning Board.  I said then:

We have agreed to utilize the forum provided by the Ocean Beach Planning Board. … Once on the agenda, Drew can prove to the community that drastic measures must be taken.  Community members can respond and give their own reports about the tree.

Via a series of emails back and forth, this agreement was confirmed by Thyme Curtis of Faulconer’s office. Mary Wolford of the Street Division was notified, as was the Chair and Vice-Chair of the OB Planning Board.

When Agee found out that Potocki had three other opinions, he immediately filed a Public Records Request with the City.  We both had assumed these opinions were written documents.

Meanwhile, it was around that time, that Agee retained a Torrey Pines specialist by the name of Theron Winsby.  We met Winsby out at the tree.  Immediately, he could tell the tree was healthy and not in any immediate danger of falling.  Winsby could not actually dig around the tree but he did report to us that to get a more factual report of the tree’s state, the tree needed a “root collar excavation” (RCE) and the one piece of concrete of the sidewalk carefully moved to inspect.

A RCE involves the removal of about 3- 6 inches of soil around the tree base, which we were told is actually a good thing for the tree anyway.  A root collar excavation will show exactly how the main roots have developed over the years. If the tree appears to have a solid root crown and solid structure roots after inspection, it will need to be systematically pruned.  Winsby stated that the pruning should concentrate on the upper canopy while retaining lower limbs. The lower limbs should be left on the tree.  And the reduction pruning should be in phases over the next three years to train the tree to grow back toward the south to balance.

Winsby iterated that there should be no root cutting at all unless the tree is coming down. If the city wants to repair the concrete path, there are many alternatives to cutting roots.  For example, he said, a “synthetic wood” trexdeck bridge is even one alternative.  Painting the adjacent curb red under tree could lessen liability.

On the 17th of November, Agee said he had spoken to the management company who manages the property at 4633 Saratoga where the tree is and informed them what is going on . The owner is supposed to get in contact with him.

On the 19th, the Chair of the Planning Board, Giovanni Ingolia, informed us that the tree was tentatively on the agenda for December 1st.  This was gratifying news, as I strongly believed that the community and the City should use our local planning board as a forum, as a sounding board for issues that pertain to the public.  I knew how the Board was run, as I had been a member of the board for 3 years and for one year, sat as the Chair.  Everything seemed to be going as planned, that is, until the 22nd.

On that day, Mary Wolford, project manager for the City’s Street Division sent an email to Thyme Curtis, of Faulconer’s office. Wolford wrote:

Hello Thyme,

Regarding the Torrey Pine tree at 4633 Long Branch Avenue, I don’t know for sure that the work won’t be done before March. Sidewalk Replacement Group 7 is scheduled to start construction in March and will remove this tree. Several arborists have examined the tree and all agree that it is a hazard and may fall over-but they don’t know when. A resident has contacted us, expressing concern that recent rains have caused the tree to move and is leaning even more than it was before. As additional rain saturates the soil, it may become necessary for City Forces to remove the tree before our contract is scheduled to do so in March. We will be monitoring the condition of this tree to determine if it becomes a more urgent public safety concern than it already is.


This was a small bombshell.  Here was the City saying that they might chop the tree down soon, and again citing un-named arborists and incorrectly declaring “all agree that it is a hazard”, and again citing an unknown resident’s hearsay about the tree moving during the recent storm.  There was absolutely no substantiation, no studies or evaluations cited, and no comparison of the tree in its current state with how it looked three years ago when the City checked on it.

I dashed off an email to Wolford, cc’ing everybody else:

My name is Frank Gormlie and I edit and publish the OB Rag. We (the Rag and residents) have an agreement with Drew Potocki that the city will not touch this tree until the City is able to prove to local residents and the OB Planning Board that it either needs drastic pruning or to be cut down.

An arborist has been retained by residents who will give us a report on this tree. Preliminarily, we see no reason for this tree to be cut down, nor drastically trimmed. It has been leaning for decades and poses no immediate danger nor any danger in the near foreseeable future.

Councilmember Faulconer’s office and the OB Planning Board are aware of this agreement.

I want your assurances that your division will not touch this beautiful, historic and protected Torrey Pine tree until such time that the community has agreed to any trimming/ or otherwise drastic action.

Frank Gormlie

Three days later, Wolford acknowledged that she had received my email, and that she would get back to me.

Right around Thanksgiving, Agee received an email from the City’s Clerk’s Office informing him that they had received his Public Records Request regarding the three reports of Potocki’s arborists.  A day later he received another email from the Clerk’s Office saying they needed an “extension” in order to process the request.

Agee was getting nervous. It appeared that he wouldn’t have these “independent” reports and opinions by the time of the Planning Board meeting, which at that moment, was only three working days away.

I tried to reassure him, that we needed to allow the Planning Board to handle the matter, and that if necessary, we could get a continuance from the Board in order to give them our presentation.  We agreed that there was no rush – that the tree had stood there for 80 years, and that another month or so would not endanger anyone.  Yet, in the back of our minds, we still harbored the threats by the City that if more winter rains and storms come through, they just might declare the Torrey Pine a hazard and take it down.

By this time, Channel 10News had picked the story up and gave the tree’s plight some favorable attention.  Agee was interviewed and he made a good case to save the tree. Although, again, a local former resident “Tim” was quoted that the tree needed to be removed. I know this “Tim” and also know that he moved off that block last summer, although he still has property there, down the block from the tree.

Agee informed me that he had retained yet another arborist, another Torrey Pines tree expert, who would also look at the tree and possibly attend the Planning Board meeting on the 1st of December.  Winsby was also hoped to be present.

Patty and I made up some fliers, and Agee and I met at the block again, and going door-to-door, handed them out to local residents, informing them that the City wanted to remove the tree, and urging them to attend the Planning Board meeting.  In going door to door, most of the people we talked to wanted to save the Torrey Pine tree – the tree that dominated their block like a huge green guardian.

Part Three coming up – What happened and who said what at the December 1 OB Planning Board.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

OB Dude December 6, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Thanks for the update!!!!


dave rice December 7, 2010 at 12:16 pm

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