1970 Video Shows Fallacy of City’s Claims of Palm Tree Growth in Ocean Beach and Point Loma

by on March 8, 2022 · 15 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

The conflict over the Newport palm trees that are allegedly interfering with aircraft flying over Point Loma is quiet at the moment. No official word yet.

A resident reported that the trees that supposedly posed an immediate safety hazard were recently trimmed.

However, thanks to some archival video of Newport Avenue, the major fallacy of tree growth can be substantiated.

OB resident and vice-chair of the OB Planning Board Kevin Hastings dug up a 1970 video that shows Newport Avenue from Venice Street, at the east end running west to the beach.  It was possible to get an image off of this video that shows the home at the corner of Newport and Santa Barbara.

In front of this house are two trees that were marked for removal by the city. The residents of the house, Tracy and John Van De Walker, have spearheaded the fight to save the trees. Tracy bravely stopped the removals the first day this all started by standing under the trees.

The first picture below is from the video. It shows the Van Der Walker home in 1970 and the two trees in front.  A level line was drawn from the peak of the home to the trees.

Image from 1970 video

The second picture is from a recent photograph and the same line was placed from the home to the trees. It is very clear that the tree have grown very little in 52 years.

Current picture of trees notated

Contrast what these pictures show with the October 18, 2021 letter from the airport explaining why the trees had to be removed. The letter contained a table about tree height relative to the alleged problem. There was a single footnote in the table on the column heading “Top Elev.1” – referring to tree height. Here is the footnote:

“1 – All elevations are provided in mean sea level (MSL) and include a 10 ft. buffer to capture five years of future growth per FAA guidance. The FAA estimates an annual normalized growth rate of 2.5 feet per year for trees (see FAA Engineering Brief #91 – Management of Vegetation in the Airport Environment).”

So, at an “annual normalized growth rate of 2.5 feet per year,” the palms in the second picture should be 130 feet TALLER than they were in 1970.

We don’t need to be engineers to see this clearly has not happened. Now let’s take a look at the imaginary line the airport says these palms interfere with.

Terminal Instrument Procedures – TERPS

The airport’s alleged issue with the trees is that they will be so tall they will interfere with aircraft ground radar system. The wording “will be” was intentional because the trees are not now interfering now, calling into question why the city’s forester said they constituted an immediate safety hazard.

The alleged interference would only matter when the planes approach the airport from the west. As residents know, the west-to-east approach is only used because of certain weather conditions such as fog and Santa Ana winds blowing from the east. The vast majority of the landing approaches are from east-to-west.

The airport claims that any obstructions above a certain height, called the TERPS line, affects the aircraft’s radar as it approaches the peninsula. Apparently, palm trees with their very small top areas, in comparison to any other trees, affect the ground reading. According to the airport.

This part of this issue has been destroyed by others already who have the technical background to point out the fallacies. The biggest hole in the argument is that the airport is required to changeover – and may be doing so now – from its old system to GPS which would not be at all affected by some palm fronds.

This piece is more about the height issue. The pictures clearly tell the story but the story of the TERPS line, and how it was calculated, is important too.  This is another crack in the body of information provided by the airport that the city tried to use to justify removing these historic trees as immediate safety hazards.

Credit goes again to Kevin Hastings, an engineer by profession, for making an effort to look into the TERPS information.  Trying to make some sense of all the available data requires an engineering mind.

To state it simply, the TERPS line is an imaginary line above the ground. The figure the airport used was 270 feet above sea level. Imagine it being exactly 270 feet above the beach and think how much closer the ground would be to that elevation on upper Newport.

Hastings pointed out that the airport’s height table showed three TERPS elevations, 294.35 feet for one tree, 276.48 feet for one tree, and 270 feet for six trees.

KH Tree Graphic

The following table came from the airport’s letter:

Table from Airport 10-18-21

Hastings wrote a letter to the airport pointing out problems he had with the available information. The main problem was that 290 feet was the lowest TERPS surface he could find at the tree location according to the airport’s own document, the Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan, or ALUCP.

Hastings requested a copy of the data file for the TERPS surfaces that were used for the airport’s analysis.

In the spirit of non-cooperation, the airport told Hastings to make a Public Records Request. The intent of the Public Records Request has been abused by all agencies now. No longer can anyone just give you something as they might have in the past. Now, it is policy to refer everything to a PRR, which can legally take up to five weeks, plenty of time for shenanigans of all kinds.

Hastings made the request and received documents three weeks later.  What he received were computer-aided design, or CAD, files. Luckily, he had what was needed to make sense of them. This requires access to CAD software program and the expertise to use it, obviously.

After reviewing the data, Hastings concluded the numbers did not add up. The airport’s own Airport Land Use Compatibility Plan, or ALUCP, showed a 290-foot surface, did not match the 270-foot elevation the airport used for the trees. Clearly, 20 feet of additional height would make a big difference in the discussion.

To date, the airport has not responded or provided an explanation about the TERPS elevation discrepancies between its own ALUCP and what they told the public last October about the trees. The ridiculous assumption about tree growth and a possible error of 20 vertical feet make the argument that these palms are interfering with modern aviation seem ludicrous.

City forester Brian Widener’s use of this kind of information to declare a safety emergency, so he could remove the trees with no public notice at all, was reprehensible and possibly criminal. The city needs a new forester.


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

sealintheselkirks March 8, 2022 at 11:58 am

If it wasn’t so ridiculous one could almost find this ‘controversy’ funny…in a pitifully ignorant sort of way.

So the trees have hardly grown in 50 years?? That video clip does seem to create one of those ‘DUH’ moments for the airport officials who obviously don’t know what they are talking about, and should give one pause as to why the city forester still collects a paycheck for being so completely ignorant in his supposed area of expertise. Maybe he just doesn’t like palm trees?

Declaring an emergency means there is some kind of urgent need, and this obviously isn’t even close to falling into that designation. What a bozo.

So what could be the real reason behind this that hasn’t been made public? Is there a nefarious plot to denude OB of its iconic palm trees? Or is this truly just a case of bureaucrats being their normally stupid selves? We might never know but I expect (having such low expectations of these types) that at one point the residents will wake up to the sound of chainsaws again.



Geoff Page March 8, 2022 at 7:59 pm

Here’s my theory, seal. The airport is doubling the number of gates in the new Terminal 1. I think they plan to expand their take-off and landing headings in order to accommodate the new traffic they plan to attract. When you talk to people in this area, they say there is very little traffic over their area.

I lived on the Narragansett between Froude and Guizot in the mid 80s and the plane noise there was deafening so I was surprised to hear there was not much traffic over upper Newport at Santa Barbara now. I think this was pre-emptive work by the airport and the city was only to glad to help because they hate palm trees. They are taking them down every chance they get to save money.

This looks like a conspiracy between the airport and the city that was built on very thin gruel.


Vern March 9, 2022 at 10:02 am

There are plenty of low, loud flights in that area. And there will be many more at altitudes of 1500′ ASL.
Post 2015 & pre-Covid, it was deafening, no question. The flight paths have been modified to fly over noise sensitive areas (homes, schools, houses of worship, etc) rather than noise compatible areas.


Sadie March 22, 2022 at 10:54 am

They should fly over the homes that have benefited from the Quieter Home Program.


retired botanist March 8, 2022 at 4:04 pm

OMG, thank you Kevin for your exhaustive efforts to discern fact from fiction, and ferret out stuff that is simply too complicated for lay folks! As a botanist, I know fundamentally that the data are wrong, but would be hard pressed to articulate it in a way that literally shoots down FAA’s absurd claim. I just hope some citizenry entity (Save Peninsula Trees? Still active? Anyone else out there? My understanding is that CFAB has zero representatives right now! ) can continue to fight this and hold FAA to their deceptive claims and abuse of “safety threat”…. there’s just been WAY TOO much of that from agencies these past few years.
Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, can San Diego get yet another new City Forester, please? This one is another Nope.


kh March 9, 2022 at 10:14 pm

The city hates palm trees. They are eager to cut them down and leave a mess of roots and dirt in their place. They’ve unilaterally said they are no longer accepting palms as street because mexican fan palms are classified as an invasive species in certain habitats.
This, despite them being listed in the street tree directory and community plans which are recognized by the municipal code.

We can argue all day long about the environmental benefits of shade trees over palms, but the fact is many residents like the aesthetic of palms and the views they preserve. If there is a justification to change that, it should be done in a transparent fashion.


kh March 9, 2022 at 10:15 pm

*no longer accepting palms as a street tree


Vern March 10, 2022 at 6:07 am

San Diego Airport loves it’s palm trees…



Saidy April 25, 2022 at 2:29 pm

No kidding! This is such a travesty!!!


Katie April 25, 2022 at 1:04 pm

How can they be invasive when they are surrounded by cement?


Geoff Page April 25, 2022 at 3:04 pm

Exactly, they can’t. I spoke to a knowledgeable person who said they will propagate down along the river in the wild areas but not on the city streets where we see them.


John Aiya April 25, 2022 at 12:52 pm

Are you going to chain yourself to a tree again like you did many years ago?


Geoff Page April 25, 2022 at 1:09 pm

I have never chained myself to a tree. Perhaps you are thinking of someone else.


Katie April 25, 2022 at 1:03 pm

The airport should have been moved out of town back in the 60s.

It’s dangerous.

It’s been scary to land and take off from for a long time, its use has outgrown its space.

The trees were the problem?

I’d say it is the airport that is the problem.


Saidy April 25, 2022 at 1:56 pm

The city cut down a few iconic palms on Newport today.


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