4 Palms Cut Down by City at Niagara and Cable Without Explanation

by on November 9, 2021 · 18 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

It’s not enough that city forester, Brian Widener, wants to cut down the historic palms on Newport Ave., using the excuse of public safety, and refusing to explain what the safety emergency is. His department removed four palms at the intersection of Cable and Niagara on October 28 and the city’s forester refuses to say why.

Widener was asked why in an October 29 email:

“It was reported that palms were taken down at the intersection of Cable and Niagara Streets in Ocean Beach yesterday. After looking at this location, it appeared that a number of trees had been removed recently.  The community would like to understand the city’s reasoning for removing these trees.  Thank you.”

Very politely asked, nothing antagonistic about that request. Today, Widener responded:

“I would suggest putting in for a Public Records Act request.  As I may have mentioned before we strive to grow our tree canopy cover by maintaining all our street trees, however the City does remove hundreds of street trees every year throughout the City of SD for forest health and public safety.   Thank you.”

Now, considering the public relations nightmare the Newport palms have been, and continue to be, for Mr. Widener, this kind of a response just confirms that this city forester does not understand for whom he works. This was an opportunity to show he is a cooperative and useful public servant and possibly mend some of his tattered reputation. That is — depending on why the palms were removed of course.

A visit to site on October 28 showed four places where it appeared trees were removed. Google Earth confirmed that there were four palms in the four bare places that could be seen. This is on the southeast corner of the intersection.

There was no obvious reason for the removal such as overhead power lines or damage to the sidewalk or street. If the trees were sick, there would be no reason for Widener not to respond.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Public Records Request process, it can take a minimum of 24 business days or over a month to get a response.  The law requires a response within 10 business days but has always had a provision that allowed a public agency to take an additional 14 days if the request was complicated and required a large effort to satisfy.

But, the additional 14 days was meant for specific requests that were individually judged complicated enough to trigger the additional time.  The city of San Diego has abused this provision because it is an automatic response to every request the city receives, no matter how simple.

On October 18, this writer put in a PRR about the palms on upper Newport. Here was the request:

“A copy of the aeronautical survey conducted by the SDIA of obstructions surrounding the San Diego Airport that justifies tree removal in Point Loma. The City’s Forester, Brian Widener should have a copy as he is using this information to justify tree removals.”

Here is the first standard response received the same day:

“Please be advised that City staff have received your CPRA request. Within the next 10 days, we will determine whether your request seeks copies of disclosable records in the City’s possession or whether the City will require an extension. If your request is submitted on a Saturday, Sunday, or City holiday, the City considers the request received on the following business day.”

The city took the entire 10 days before responding again on October 28:

“Pursuant to California Government Code section 6253(c), in the case of electronic records, the City needs to compile data, or construct a computer report to extract data. Therefore, the City is taking a 14-day extension in which to conduct this compilation. We will notify you on or before Friday, November 12, 2021, whether the City has responsive records.”

The city may or may not take another full 14 days but one has to wonder how hard it would be to obtain a copy of one document in 10 business days, much less 24.

Widener’s uncooperative response has generated the PRR that he mentioned. But, to fulfill it will require more effort than just answering the question that was put to him. Here is the second PRR:

“A copy of the city forester’s list of all trees planned for removal on the Point Loma Peninsula for the remainder of 2021 and all of 2022. The information required is:

    • Type of trees to be removed
    • Location of trees scheduled for removal
    • Planned dates for removals of each tree
    • Reasons for removal of each tree”

This listing does exist. Here is a copy of “Pending Tree Removals” from 2015 to 2016:

This list does not explain why these trees were planned for removal but that information will need to be provided for the requested list. It was amusing to see Thomas Brothers map coordinates on this list as late as 2015 to 2016.

Once the city coughs up the new list, it will be published so the community can weigh in on specific trees. During the tree fight back then, the then city forester committed to providing a yearly list to the local planning boards or to at least make it available. A review of the city’s “Trees” website did not show that this list is available there.  The website contains a “Maintenance” tab that contains information on tree removals from the city’s right-of-way:

“Only dead trees or trees deemed an immediate safety issue by city staff are removed from the right-of-way as soon as possible. All other removal requests are evaluated for preservation or removal, per PDF icon City Council Policy 200-5 (Planting of Trees on City Streets).”

For the historic palms on Newport, the operative words above are “Only dead trees or trees deemed an immediate safety issue by city staff are removed from the right-of-way as soon as possible.” The palms on Newport are not dead and an immediate safety issue has never been demonstrated.

“All other removal requests” are to be evaluated using City Council Policy 200-5 “Planting of Trees on City Streets,” dated November 15, 1993. Old as it may be, it is the document cited. The document describes three reasons for removing public trees:

“2. Removal of Street Trees
a. Street trees shall be removed at public expense if they meet any one of the following criteria:

(1) The Tree is dead.

(2) The tree is a hazard.

(3) The tree is damaging public improvements, the damage cannot be permanently corrected by trimming or root pruning, the owner of the fronting property requests removal, and the tree is not part of a uniform tree planting or a significant neighborhood asset.”

Items (1) and (3) would not apply to the Newport palms. Item (2) would fit in with the city’s narrative that the trees are a hazard for the airport. The problem is, the simple statement that “The tree is a hazard” is ridiculously ambiguous. What constitutes a hazard? That is not defined anywhere.

So, which of these criteria apply to the four palms taken down at Cable and Niagara? It might take a month to obtain an answer to this second, specific PRR, but once received, it will be reported here. That request was:

“Official explanation from the city forester explaining why four palm trees were removed from the intersection of Cable St. and Niagara Ave. in Ocean Beach on October 28.”


{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Mat Wahlstrom November 9, 2021 at 12:59 pm

Have to say, I’ve had lots of problems getting info from the city, but usually only have to file a CPRA because they ignore a request. This is the first I’ve seen a staffer blatantly flip the bird at not just a citizen but a member of the press. Instead of simply providing something at his fingertips, he’s wasting taxpayer money by making numerous other city staffers waste time going through a laborious process for no better reason than ‘F-U, that’s why!’

Looking at the city’s website, it says he was manager of Trees and Sidewalks in New York City and a forester in New Jersey before we made the mistake of hiring him. Either he drops his sh**ty East Coast attitude or the city needs to drop him.


Geoff Page November 10, 2021 at 12:18 pm

Yea, Mat, only a few years ago you could get information fairly easily from city staff if they had it. I found in the past several years, no one will do that anymore, they immediately refer you to the PRR site. The excuse is that the city wants to have a record of what is being provided to the public and when. The real reason is that people at the top don’t want anyone sending out anything they have not ok’d. This started during Faulconer’s term. I’m guessing someone let something out that caused Faulconer a problem, or someone else, and this started. If you’re successful still if getting documents without doin a PRR, you’re doing something right.


Mat Wahlstrom November 10, 2021 at 12:48 pm

Definitely started with Faulconer — abetted by Elliott — in tandem with the removal of database query pages and search accessible document formatting that allowed people to find information themselves without having to ask for it. Then they constantly re-shuffled the city’s website file structure so when you did find something, you’d get a 404 Error linking back to it later. They basically took every measure they could to remove transparency.

(Heck, Elliott even tried gutting the CPRA, https://obrag.org/2019/03/mayor-unanimous-city-council-against-city-attorneys-efforts-to-undermine-states-public-records-law/)

Question is, why does this continue under our new mayor #ForAllOfUs?


kh November 9, 2021 at 7:22 pm

The trees were dead. Really really really dead. Palm weevil dead. I can send you a photo if you’d like.


Frank Gormlie November 10, 2021 at 7:08 am

Okay, where is the photo?


Geoff Page November 10, 2021 at 12:19 pm

Then why didn’t he just say so?


kh November 10, 2021 at 2:54 pm

Possibly because he thinks he doesn’t owe you/us an answer. Which is the real problem, not these particular 4 trees. I think the demise of canary island palms is prettt common knowledge by now.

When the torrey pines were getting cut down I recall he claimed he’d be more transparent with the community on these sort of issues.


unwashedWalmartThonG November 9, 2021 at 11:18 pm

Post the pics, please.


Frank Gormlie November 10, 2021 at 7:20 am

If the issue is so cut and dried – “they’re dead” – why is the city and the city forester not being transparent here?


kh November 10, 2021 at 11:36 am

I believe they were posted for removal with proper parking notice, and most likely reported by neighbors due to their condition. I understand the point, but there wasn’t any controversy on these particular trees. It reads as if someone wrote an article based on google street view rather than local information.

Most of the canary island palms in OB have died, apparently from the Palm Weevil. I estimate about 50 in OB have been cut down, 11 on my own street. I’ll email you a photo I have. The city has replaced none of them. And they leave the area with a mess of roots, making it difficult to replant it. Write about that maybe.


Frank Gormlie November 10, 2021 at 11:57 am

That weevil is wicked and has killed more palm trees than the city.


Geoff Page November 10, 2021 at 12:13 pm

kh, the point of this article was to further illustrate the attitude of the city’s forester. It was not a palm controversy story.

If these were dead canary palms, all he had to do was say so. Everyone in the peninsula knows about the Canary’s dying everywhere because of the beetle. The point of the Google Earth photo was simply to show that there were four trees there. All I saw were four bare spots and I did not want to assume, or have anyone just accept my word, that there were palms in those spots.


Matt November 10, 2021 at 7:36 am

Cut one on Cape May Ave as well around then, almost cut two, people told them to stop.


GML November 10, 2021 at 7:54 am

Definitely a shame the city is not being transparent in their dealings with the community. That being said, the palms are on city land, both in this article and the ones at Newport and Santa Barbara. We learned this the painful way when they installed the ADA ramps on the corner and tore up our brickwork.


Tyler November 10, 2021 at 11:49 am

I would also just add that I’ve yet to city the city take care of the new trees they plant in the public right of way after cutting old ones down. Look no further than the “trees” that are planted along Abbott in the last few years near Brighton, etc.


Frank Gormlie November 10, 2021 at 12:02 pm

Ya know, that’s an excellent point, Tyler. So much for the “canopy.”


dajohn November 10, 2021 at 5:37 pm

These trees are the ones that had a huge chunk fall off and crushed a car around Christmas time last year……… probably a decent argument for safety here


Sadie March 24, 2022 at 2:42 pm

The City still uses Thomas Bros maps? (Image list above) I didn’t realize they were still in use!


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