Backlash Grows in Ocean Beach Against City Cutting Down Trees

by on May 11, 2016 · 7 comments

in Civil Disobedience, Civil Rights, Culture, Environment, History, Ocean Beach, Organizing, Politics, San Diego

Ocean beach beachfrontThere appears to be a growing backlash in Ocean Beach against the City’s cutting down of trees in the public right-of-way around the community.  The backlash also includes negative reactions to the severe trimming of trees along commercial streets.


Geoff Page stands in front of Torrey Pine insisting on production of permits.

Three recent examples of OBceans exhibiting opposition to the downing or harsh trimming of trees illustrate this backlash.

The City is responsible for trees in the public right-of-way, and, of course, the City itself doesn’t cut down or trim trees – it contracts with private companies to do the dirty work.

Signs of the backlash trend include, first, when crews began setting up to cut down the Torrey Pines on Saratoga Avenue, one lone OBcean by the name of Geoff Page, took a stand – right in front of the first towering tree – and refused to budge until the permit for the cutting was presented. The crews were immediately ordered to halt their work – and for the next couple of hours they sat on the sidelines until the company produced the permits, and until city people arrived.

Meanwhile, others who supported Geoff appeared on the scene, and stood or sat with him until he was satisfied that permits for the work and the clearing of the street had been obtained. The permits were produced, Geoff was satisfied – although still upset, and the crews cut down two trees of a protected species.

Many neighbors and other OBceans were upset, and for the remainder of that day, came by to pay their last respects to the fallen giants. Some were angered by the lack of process, the lack of notice, and the failure of the city to  go through the local OB Planning Board. In fact, the head of the Planning Board, John Ambert, wrote a pointed letter critical of the lack of process, arguing that the crews had no authorization, gave no notice, and the city did not engage the community on the issue of cutting down the trees, plus he cited a possible conflict of interest between the city and the arborist.

Many in OB remain very steamed about the entire incident.

OBPB Meet 5-4-16 board

William Corwin – in foreground – took his seat on the OB Planning Board. He wants to keep businesses from over-trimming trees in the public right-of-way.

Another example of the backlash is the speech made by a potential candidate to the OB Planning Board last week, just prior to his appointment to the Board. William Corwin, who had identified himself with environmental activists at the OB People’s Food Market Co-op, spoke of how one of his biggest concerns in the community is the cutting down or over-trimming of trees in the right-of-way, especially along some of OB’s business streets.  Corwin recounted how he had attempted to work with property managers to avoid severe or “over-trimming” of trees that weren’t being allowed to reach their natural and unobtrusive heights. And at times, to no avail.

A third example of this backlash trend in OB is the most recent reaction among locals to the apparent cutting down of a healthy Chinese Flame Tree along the 4800 block of Voltaire Street just this past May 3rd.  Neighbors and local businesspeople and staff were outraged at the seemingly arbitrariness of the destruction of the tree. Folks at the Green Center, particularly Kip Kruegar and Colleen Dietzel, pointed out that any cracks in the sidewalk made by the 17 year old tree planted under a program of the City’s are no worse than other irregularities in the asphalt or concrete of other nearby trees.


Colleen Dietzel stands with Chinese Flame Tree – similar to one across the street that was cut down because it was causing “cracks” in the sidewalk. So does the tree that Colleen is standing next to – and others along that block of Voltaire.

Others expressed their outrage by spray-painting “RIP” and “why?” on the sidewalk. And there is some evidence that the City may have had private crews take down the wrong tree.

Now this recent backlash has deep roots. OB naturally is well-known for its pro-environmental groundings and attitudes. And there are other examples of OBceans fighting to save trees.

There was the historic and successful effort to save a Torrey Pine on the 4600 block of Long Branch back in 2010, an effort led by local Richard Agee as well as by the OB Rag. The City wanted to cut down this Torrey Pine because it was supposedly “leaning” and a danger. But in fact, as Agee’s hired Torrey Pines specialist taught the community, Torrey Pines often grow at a slant – that is what they do.

Agee is known for saving palm trees along Santa Barbara . Another well-known tree-lover is Kathy Blavatt who also has made a name for herself in efforts to save and preserve local trees.

torrey pine longbranch js-ed

Torrey Pine on Long Branch that was saved. The City wanted to cut it down because it was “leaning”.

And if one travels all the way back to the Ocean Beach of the 1970s, community activists had formed a “Phone Tree” as a type of instant response network to come out, observe and possibly intervene in any cutting down of local trees.

Of course, the human desire to maintain and preserve our friends of foliage is not restricted to Ocean Beach. In fact, just recently, an elderly woman made the news in her efforts to prevent the City from cutting down a tree that she and her deceased husband had planted many years earlier.

A 91-year-old Allied Gardens widow has won a temporary reprieve from the city of San Diego after Mayor Kevin Faulconer heard her public plea to spare a beloved tree targeted for destruction. Marie Ostwald said that the pepper tree she and her husband planted in front of their home on Mission Gorge Road and Greenbrier Avenue almost 60 years ago is a living memorial to him. … But city officials said last week that the tree, which stands some 35-feet-high and has a trunk that is 4-feet in diameter, was unstable and had to be cut down. …

The problem all started a couple weeks ago when Ostwald said she contacted her councilman’s office and requested that some work be done on the sidewalk that had been cracked as the tree grew over the years.  “All I wanted to do was help the city,” she said.

Crews came and the work was done. “I was so happy,” Ostwald said. But the next thing she knew, more workers came out and told her the tree had to come down.

It is amazing that the widow had to appeal all the way up to Mayor Faulconer. Why couldn’t she have worked out something with someone lower down the food chain?

One answer – is that many times it’s difficult to find someone from the City in charge of tree cuttings and trimmings. This reflects perhaps a habit of having little city oversight over these type of projects. When locals asked to see a permit or someone from the city during the Torrey Pines incident on Saratoga, it took hours before someone from the City – other than police – to appear on site.

When locals came out to see what was happening to the Chinese Flame tree that was being cut down, they could not find anyone from the City. Upset neighbors have appealed to the mayor and the city councilwoman about this. As yet, there has not been any answer or resolution to what happened and why.

This lack of oversight reflects a lack of accountability. Who’s in charge?

Perhaps the answer is in the contracts between the City and the companies that employ the crews who use the equipment to cut down or trim trees in the right-of-way. Why does it appear that one company does all the work, gets all the contracts for all the tree trimming and cutting? The day that Atlas Tree Service cut down two Torrey Pines on that block of Saratoga, Atlas Tree crews were observed making major trims on trees along the entrance to OB along Nimitz Avenue. Are these contracts too lucrative? Do the tree companies get more money for every tree they trim or cut down – so it’s in their interest to keep cutting and trimming? Okay, perhaps that’s too simplified.

Whatever the cause or reason, people in Ocean Beach are just becoming very sensitive to the seemingly continued denuding of the urban landscape – all the while during a time of supposed increase in San Diego government sensitivity to climate change and needed action. The continued seemingly arbitrary nature of the cutting down of trees or the over-trimming of trees in the right-of-way has created a genuine grass-roots backlash within the village.

Sometimes that is what it takes to deal with public transgressions by the very government that is supposed to serve us. Maybe it’s time to form some kind of tree protective league for Ocean Beach and the Peninsula. If that is what it takes to save and preserve those plants that provide us with canopy and so much more.

A person recently made this comment to an article about the Chinese Flame tree:

taking down a healthy tree should be a crime…..we need the shade, the beauty, nature……the sidewalks are repairable…..the tree cannot be replaced….not when it took 17 years to grow there…thank you to all the people who care enough to spray paint, protest….don’t let this go..the trees need our help….and we need the trees for so many reasons

We’re not certain of the answer either. Especially when we have to ask, ‘Just what is the question?’ Is the question why is the bureaucracy taking down our trees? Why was the Chinese Flame taken down? Who complained?

But we do know – that when you see a crew about to take down a tree in the right-of-way, you have a right to request/ demand that they produce the permit – which they have to do.

We also want the City to take any major action – such as the cutting down of a tree – to the Ocean Beach Planning Board for approval – and yes, engage the community.

Instead of cutting trees down, find alternatives, be creative.

These are our trees and the trees of our kids and grandkids. Let’s protect and preserve them.





{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

gregg May 11, 2016 at 1:27 pm

I love trees but the Chinese flame tree is not an appropriate tree as urban street tree. It should not have been planted in the first place. In fact most of the trees on Voltaire are inappropriate. The flame tree along with many others have surface roots that break curbs and sidewalks and sometimes the foundations/slabs of buildings.

You need to use deep rooted trees along with root barriers that push the roots down, below grade irrigation so they are on a regular watering schedule and proper planting techniques. They also need regular pruning. Do your research before planting.

Myself. I would like to see a common street tree theme that would identify Voltaire as a commercial district not this gobbily goop of trees we now have. An idea I had is to reestablish the line of palms that were once there and then in between each palm plant a deciduous canopy tree for human scale such as the Jacaranda. I think they work well in the r.o.w. Do this from Ebert to Bacon.


Colin May 11, 2016 at 2:23 pm

Good questions raised. Though I found some apparently decently sourced info saying otherwise, that Chinese Flames are actually ideal street trees:

“Excellent tree for use in a lawn, roots are non-invasive. Excellent street tree.”
(a San Diego nursery)

“Chinese flame tree has a benevolent, deep root system that makes it ideal for growing as a street-side tree or around patios and walkways.”


gregg May 12, 2016 at 11:44 am

Maybe that’s what the literature says and if planted and watered properly maybe they wouldn’t be a problem. But my observation of the flame trees around OB seems contrary to what the literature states.


Geoff Page May 11, 2016 at 4:45 pm

I will have a lot more to say later but I cans say this much now after a public records request regarding the Torrey pines the city destroyed on Saratoga. The city is allowing one person to make these decisions and that one person used an arborist report from the company that got the contract to cut the trees down to justify his actions. There is something very rotten in the city when it comes to our trees. I plan to produce a report when I finish my evaluation but I would encourage someone to put in a PR request for information on the flame tree.


KIP OF VOLTAIRE May 12, 2016 at 3:07 pm

Thurs., May 12, 2016….The Green Store just got official notification from the mayor’s office that the wrong tree was destroyed on the 4800 block of Voltaire street last week. They stated that the Chinese Flame (a wonderful street tree) was not to be cut, but that a nearby Pine Tree had received the death sentence. When told that this did not seem like a very smart thing to do either, the mayor’s office got back to The Green Store & said that the Pine would be only trimmed & then monitored every couple months. Well there you have it! Either someone at the city or Atlas tree doesn’t know how to read a work order, or they don’t know a canopy tree from a pine tree. Also, most OBceans (90%) know that we need our trees & that we love our trees, not just for us to enjoy, but for the future of the planet… you know, Earth!


Colin May 12, 2016 at 4:28 pm

Great info. Sounds like the mayor’s office owes a replacement tree…


Rick May 12, 2016 at 11:50 pm

Sounds like good fodder for a future questions of Lori Zapf’s OB reps or other city staffers at the next OB Town Council??? They are usually pretty clueless, though, when it comes to answering unscripted questions from the unwashed public. . .


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