The City of San Diego and its Forester Misrepresented ‘Immediate Safety Hazard’ in Effort to Remove Point Loma Palm Trees

by on March 17, 2022 · 20 comments

in Ocean Beach

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

By Geoff Page

Whenever you plan to take an action you know is wrong, it helps to have confederates around you so when the feces hit the fan, they won’t all blow on you. In this case, there were, allegedly, three confederates, the FAA, the airport, and the city.

The action, that someone clearly knew was wrong, was the attempt to cut down historic tall palm trees in the 4300 and 4400 blocks of Newport Avenue. The wrong in this case was the city’s so far unsubstantiated claim that the trees were an immediate safety hazard.

When the authorities deem something an immediate safety hazard, it allows them to proceed at will to protect the public, forgoing all of the normal requirements in the interest of time. This makes very good sense. But, this mechanism is often abused. It all comes down to what is judged an immediate safety hazard and who gets to make that judgement.

At this point, the city has not provided an explanation so a Public Records Request has been filed. This should be interesting.

The three confederates appear to have been a work of fiction by the city.

In an NBC 7 story dated November 16, 2021, was the following:

“At the request of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and San Diego International Airport, the city of San Diego plans to remove about 20 palm trees from two locations in Ocean Beach and Bankers Hill,” a statement read, in part, sent to NBC 7 Friday by Anthony Santacroce, a senior public information officer for the city of San Diego.

From a KPBS story titled, “Homeowners fight to save century-old palm trees in OB, Point Loma area,” dated November 19, 2021:

“There is currently no date for removal of the palms and we are engaging with the FAA and the San Diego Airport so that we may receive clear direction on why removal is necessary and the expected impacts to flights and public safety if the trees are not removed.”

Judging by the wording, “At the request of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),” and “we are engaging with the FAA,” one would think the FAA was one of the three confederates. The answer that the FAA finally coughed up was surprising.

Peninsula Community Planning Board member Mandy Havlik, started an email string to San Diego Congressman Scott Peters office beginning at the end of November last year and it ended the first week of March when the FAA replied in a 390-word, single paragraph. Buried within was the following wording, the last sentence tells the story:

“An obstruction evaluation (OE) filing with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the necessary trigger for the agency to issue an advisory determination, if any object would be considered an obstruction and to apply any mitigation measures to protect the existing airspace. There is no record of an OE case filed with the FAA for the palm trees by either the airport authority or the city. The FAA is not a party to the proposed actions of the city.”

An email was sent to Anthony Santacroce asking about the discrepancy between what the city was saying and what the FAA has said. The response was brief, “I have no comment on things currently in litigation.” Hopefully, this will be asked during that litigation.

So, now there are only two partners in crime, the airport and the city. Losing the FAA is big, that provided the lie of federal legitimacy for the city’s action. Now, it is just the two entities and it is doubtful that the airport will fall on a sword for the city.

The only one of the two to benefit from cutting these trees down immediately was the city. The airport can correctly point out that their own document to the public contained a table showing that the trees would intrude of the imaginary line in several years. Not a word about “immediate” in their stuff.

What we have left is the city, specifically city forester Brian Widener, who tried to abuse the immediate safety hazard mechanism to get rid of more palm trees.

The Municipal Code defines “Imminent Life Safety Hazard” as “any condition which creates a present, extreme and immediate danger to life, property, health or public safety.”

Since all of the trees are still standing just five months later, this definition clearly would not have applied as the city forester attempted to apply it.

The city’s forestry website is titled “Trees.” There can be found information of the Community Forest Advisory Board. It is described as follows:

“The City’s award-winning Community Forest Advisory Board is charged with advising the Mayor on all policy issues relating to urban forestry. There are 14 board members appointed by the Mayor and the City Council.”

Funny thing, the Municipal Code they link to says the board is supposed to be 15 people.

When you hit the link for the current 14 board members, it shows that 12 members are marked as expired and two members are marked as vacant. Of the 12 expired members:

  • 7 terms expired on January first 2021.
  • 2 terms were marked as vacant January first 2020
  • One term was vacant as of December 31, 2019
  • One term was vacant as of January first 2014
  • One term was vacant as of January first 2011.

The description did not say when the board won those awards.

Widener has been here since November 2017. According to public information on LinkedIn, he has a forestry degree from Northern Arizona University that took him 11 years to earn. There is nothing on the site that shows what he did for five years after completing the degree. It shows Widener worked in New York City for seven years before coming to San Diego.

Why would San Diego go all the way to New York to hire this person? California has 40 plus million people. And, what would a person with that background know about West Coast flora?

Widener displayed a New York attitude when he came to the palm tree site the day of the demonstration and refused to answer any questions, saying only the trees were coming down. It could only be described as arrogance.

Now that we know Widener lied about the immediate safety hazard, how can we continue to pay his salary with our tax dollars?  Public servants who do not understand that they are there to serve the public, not to dictate to the public, do not understand their jobs.



{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

kh March 18, 2022 at 3:41 pm

In my public records request I asked for the obstruction survey by PTI but did not receive it. I haven’t followed up.


Sam March 23, 2022 at 7:58 am

public records requests have deadlines – were you provided a date by which you should have received the info?


Mat Wahlstrom March 19, 2022 at 12:52 pm

Great reporting, Geoff. Keep on them.


Geoff Page March 20, 2022 at 12:10 pm

Thanks, Matt. I have another coming about a different set of palm trees.


Geoff Page March 20, 2022 at 12:11 pm

I meant to also say, we need to give some credit to Mandy Havlik for starting the request that was eventually answered by the FAA.


Carolyn Chase March 20, 2022 at 10:15 am

What lawsuit??? There is a lawsuit related to the removal of healthy 110+ year-old California pepper trees in Kensington, but what lawsuit is related to these palms?


Frank Gormlie March 20, 2022 at 10:33 am

Carolyn – good to hear from you. For background, do a word search on our search bar for “palm trees” for starters.


Geoff Page March 20, 2022 at 12:06 pm


John and Tracy Van De Walker filed suit against the city, the airport, and the FAA last fall. Two of the trees are in front of their home. It was originally filed to get a temporary injunction not to cut the trees, which was successful. But, when it came back to court to be extended for enough time to really study this issue, the judge ruled against them and did not extend the injunction. However, the case is on-going, which was what Mr. Santacroce used to justify not answering.


Carolyn Chase March 20, 2022 at 10:19 am

The Mayor has been recruiting applicants for the three environmental boards that were allowed to go dormant: Forest Advisory Board, Sustainable Energy Board and Wetland Advisory Board. You can apply online. Here’s the info on the Forestry Board and the link the apply to any of the City Boards:


Geoff Page March 20, 2022 at 12:09 pm

Well, I don’t know when the mayor began recruiting applicants but it appears not much has happened during his first 15 months in office.


Ob surfer March 22, 2022 at 10:24 pm

Probably neighbors with obstructed views and connections in the city.


Geoff Page March 23, 2022 at 12:13 pm

Not this time surfer. Those trees are too tall and too narrow to obstruct anyone’s view.


retired botanist March 24, 2022 at 7:17 am

Good sleuthing, Geoff! As I mentioned in a previous article, its beyond time to ditch this guy Widener:
You may recall, back in 2018, and on behalf of OB and Save Peninsula Trees, a very detailed letter was sent to Widener regarding the Torrey Pine on Long Branch, questioning the “imminent threat” and critiquing the Level 3 assessment. It was also clearly explained to Widener back then that, when it comes to information about trees and regulatory matters, OB has been around the block MANY times, and its vigilance is backed up with extensive knowledge of regs, ordinances and such like! Fast forward, if I recall, he finally backed down and the tree was given a “6 month” stay of execution or something…I have no idea what has happened to that tree since.
But the point is, OB has seen this “danger threat” abused repeatedly. It was, in fact, the same ploy that the previous Forester, Jeremy Barrick, used to remove the pines on Saratoga Ave….we all know how that turned out.
So, imo:
1. The minute anyone hears “trees” and “public safety” in the same sentence, the radar should go up immediately!
2. The City should be pressured to replace this guy, and to widely disclose efforts to fill the seats of the CFAB.
3. The public should insist the City lift the “suspension” of the Heritage Tree Program… I can only assume that nothing is being done currently to ensure the proper maintenance and preservation measures for the trees already on the list.


Geoff Page March 24, 2022 at 1:42 pm

Thanks, retired. And, I agree, Widener needs to move on.

I remember well the Torrey on Long Branch. I was involved in the effort to save it years ago. Drew Potocki was the forester then. I discovered something very interesting during the latest threat to that tree. Turns out, it has a survey nail in it that the city has monitored twice a year for 20 years and it has not moved from vertical. This survey nail was never mentioned during the first effort to save the tree. Talk about dishonesty, seems the city has trouble hiring honest foresters. The tree is still there.

They also lied when they removed the first big, healthy, beautiful Torreys on Saratoga. This was the work of Sergio Arias who is listed as the city’s horticulturist. Seems their forest canopy goal did not include those magnificent trees.

I’m not sure the Heritage program was suspended. I got the list of applications for Heritage designation from Widener using the Public Records Request mechanism. There were only three, although one was for a whole collection of trees. That one is in court also. Widener did not include the application for Heritage designation of the Newport palms, so I had to make the city reopen the request just this week. My original request was submitted in December but the Newport palms request was submitted in October.

Always good to hear from you, retired.


Gregg Sullivan April 25, 2022 at 9:47 am

FYI that nail will never go vertical. You’re not aware how plants grow. They grow from the tip and in width only. If you had a side branch at 8′ the centerline will always stay at 8′. It will increase in diameter and length only. Ask a Botonist


Geoff Page April 25, 2022 at 10:10 am

Mr. Sullivan, perhaps you did not understand. The survey mark in the tree was used to measure the angle of the tree from vertical. They said that angle had never changed in the many years they checked it.


Gregg Sullivan April 25, 2022 at 2:43 pm

ok my apologies


Geoff Page April 25, 2022 at 2:54 pm

No worries.


retired botanist March 24, 2022 at 4:13 pm

Geoff, yep, all true. And for the current status of Heritage Tree Program, and the CFAB status, I’d suggest contacting Carolyn Chase (she has commented on a few of these articles), who seems to be abreast of the current, deplorable condition of the City’s commitment to its urban canopy goal, its tree programs, and its O&M of City trees. She is the contact who told me the Heritage Tree Program had been suspended. Again, we ask (many years later): Where’s the mitigation for lost trees? Where is the attention to newly planted trees? Where is the City in its achievement of the urban canopy goals? We need to remind the City (and the taxpayers) of the monetary value of these trees, that they belong to the public, and that they are real-dollar assets in the City’s holdings! Its extraordinary that this is STILL an issue chronically swept under the rug!! :-(
And while the palms (which are not endangered, and not even technically trees) are not on any Heritage list as far as I know, they are clearly called out in the Master Plan as a signature, visual component of OB, and therefore should be afforded protection under that plan. Not to mention that they are essential habitat for the migratory parrots (and other birds) that habit OB.


Julie Gildred Connolly April 24, 2022 at 4:03 pm

FYI – no parking signs are back up on Newport today, 4/24.
City says it is an emergency order from tree supervisor Andres Souza.


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