Reader Rant: Kensington Pepper Trees Fall Victim to a City That ‘Removes More Trees In a Year Than It Plants’

by on June 15, 2022 · 11 comments

in Environment, San Diego

Add Kensington Pepper Trees to Newport Ave. Palms, Liberty Station Eucalyptus, OB’s Torrey Pines, Normal Heights Tree Topping in Ward Canyon, etc

By Maggie McCann

Policy schmolicy.  Or so said the judge.

The Kensington pepper trees’ day in court was  merely for show.  The judge had already made up his mind before the trial started, but let the show go on, albeit with his constant interruptions and arguments overshadowing anything that our attorney could say.

In the end, His Honor decided that the City does not have to follow Council Policy 900-19, the Public Tree Protection Policy, because he called it an “unfunded mandate.”

He also made some noise about there being no case law to say that an official Council policy, for which a hearing was held, a vote taken, and the policy entered into the City’s Big Book of Policy Stuff, has the weight of an ordinance.  (Side effect:  tomorrow all City employees may go out and charge up a storm on their City-issued credit cards, since the policy limiting them to $25 purchases for City business only is, well, just a policy and not enforceable.  Have fun on us taxpayers!)

The judge said he was loathe to set the precedent that a policy had the weight of law.  He also opined that if the policy was upheld as written, that “hundreds of thousands of trees” throughout the City would qualify for protection, and how absurd would that be?

It was all very wonky.  But, for the record, and IN the record, is the following.

Brian Widener, the so-called City Forester, testified that he would much rather save a tree than remove a tree.  But then he testified that when evaluating the condition of the 37 California Pepper trees in Kensington, he only looked at a couple of trees, for which there is no record of inspection in the evidence, and judged the condition of the entire population of pepper trees as being deteriorated, diseased, damaged and at their end-of-life by looking at photographs.

He then testified that looking at photographs was not sufficient to determine the health of a tree!  Widener said that for a tree to be considered for Heritage tree protection, it has to be old.  But then he said he can’t designate it as a Heritage tree because, wait for it, it’s old!  After claiming that some of the trees had to be removed because of damage to adjacent sidewalks, when shown photos of very nice sidewalks next to the very trees he destroyed, his response was that if he squinted hard enough, he could see some damage.

We learned through the evidence that the City removes more trees in a year than it plants.

We learned that prior to Widener taking on the job of City Forester almost 5 years ago, that the City had designated 400-500 trees for protected status.  (The fact that they don’t have an exact number is an indication that they don’t really have a database to refer to, and the number is just a guess.)

Since Widener has been in the job, at least 20 Conserve-a-Tree nominations have been submitted to the City.  And of that number, only two made it as far as the Community Forest Advisory Board (CFAB), where staff (read: Widener) recommended against designation.

So in his 5 years, the majority of Conserve-a-Tree nominations, including the 3 we submitted, have been summarily discarded without review by the CFAB, and ZERO trees have obtained protected status.  As far as Widener is concerned, the policy doesn’t apply to him and he needn’t waste any time on processing nominations.

We didn’t have to squint very hard at all to see why the City does not want to give mature trees protected status.

They told us themselves in their opening brief.  The City thinks that if they have to protect mature, historic trees, then down the road, when they want do something like dig up the parkways to perform undergrounding construction, the pesky, protected trees pose a CEQA problem for them.

Trees designated as Heritage trees for not only their age, but also a connection to some historic event, building, district or were planted by a historically significant individual, as our Kensington peppers do, have the status of an historical resource under the State’s environmental laws.

The damn trees would cause them to have to actually follow the State’s CEQA laws, conduct a real environmental analysis (instead of exempting the project from CEQA), and redesign the project to preserve the trees.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is the principal statute mandating environmental assessment of projects in California. If an historical or other environmental resource is present in a project area, then mitigation measures must be undertaken to protect and preserve those resources.

CEQA requires public lead agencies to impose feasible mitigation measures as part of the approval of a “project” in order to substantially lessen or avoid  the significant adverse effects of the project on the physical environment.  Cutting down a 110 year old California Pepper tree to make room for an above ground utility box would be an example of a public agency NOT mitigating or avoiding environmental damage.  But it sure is expedient to just cut them down instead of altering the design.

Avoiding CEQA is the primary motivation of the Mayor’s office to give their employees the leeway to ignore the Council policy and do as they please.  So if you lose your historic shade tree, just be comforted by the idea that someday, somewhere a developer or SDG&E won’t have to slow their roll in order to protect your tree.

All the talk in the City’s Climate Action Plan about resiliency and increasing the urban tree canopy is just talk.  Echoing the judge, the CAP is an unfunded mandate.

There’s no money for planting enough trees to make a difference, much less anything in the budget to protect mature shade trees.  There’s plenty of money in there, though, to cut down trees.  More trees than they plant each year.

And any talk of “Climate Justice” or “Climate Equity” is more of the same bullshit.

The City loves their PR stunts when the Mayor plants a tree in an “underserved” neighborhood.  But in order for there to be any real, meaningful climate equity, our State legislators must make changes to CEQA to make it enforceable BY THE STATE on municipalities and other local governments and agencies.

Relying on individual citizens or community groups to raise the funds for a lawsuit to enforce the environmental laws inherently means that people in underserved neighborhoods, people with lower incomes scraping by on minimum wage, people without college educations working three jobs who don’t have the time to read up on the law, or people who have never heard of CEQA are not equipped to sue anybody, much less the City of San Diego.

People in places like Barrio Logan, San Ysidro, and Paradise Hills will have to continue to put up with poor air quality, loss of environmental, historical and cultural resources, loss of wetlands and open space, increases in noise, pollution and overcrowding simply because they are in no position to file a lawsuit.  So, once again, without a State-funded enforcement mechanism, only the affluent, connected populace can afford a chance at protecting their neighborhood’s environment.

Back to our trees… we have more cards up our sleeves and will pursue other avenues of protection.

What can you do to help? 

  • Start contacting your State legislators about creating a true climate justice system that does not require you and me to fund a lawsuit in order to enforce the law.
  • Start asking your local elected officials why they are not allocating enough in their budgets  to actually grow and protect the urban canopy.
  • Start grooming activist friends, family and neighbors to run for public office.
  • Start checking the environmental report cards for people holding elected office.  Begin with Home | California Environmental Voters ( and Report Cards | Sierra Club.
  • Vote for candidates with strong environmental voting records.

And, above all, when they come for your tree, remind them of what the City’s web site has to say about tree removal:

“If the City determines the tree must be removed in order to repair other infrastructure, concurrence of the abutting property owner is required.”

Then, don’t concur.



{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

J. M. Camp June 15, 2022 at 7:25 pm

This year our City Forester removed three California pepper trees less than a block away from our house. Two of them were still healthy, and after they went down, a hummingbird flapped around in panic, because her nest and eggs were felled, along with the pepper branches on the ground!

The City administration seems to have more interest in avoiding liability for people tripping on sidewalks than for providing legitimate, healthy canopy for the rest of us. Global climate change is here, and it is occurring more rapidly than anyone had predicted. Our trees also provide breeding sites and refuge for our native birds. Our country is rapidly losing its bird population!

Give us a City Forester who understands our need for more trees for canopy, and a far greater bird habitat!


Harmon Huff June 15, 2022 at 9:58 pm

We finally get a Democrat for mayor, and I thought we were going to get away from “business as usual” in San Diego, but instead, things have become much worse. All Todd Gloria cares about is photo ops about hot button items that get coverage from the national press. And even then he is only paying lip service to liberal causes. If he truly cared about climate change he would be taking Brian Widener into his office and telling him back-off. Brian Widener’s tree destruction policies are going to chip away at neighborhood character until Todd gets what he wants–a homogenous cookie-cutter, densified, big city.


kh June 16, 2022 at 9:43 am

This is the same city requiring me to spend thousands for an archeologist and native american indian monitor and mitigation plan to dig 3-ft footings on my 0.15-acre developed property. Because they think some of the fill dirt 80 years ago could’ve came from a different property in the neighborhood that was near something of paleontological interest (fossils).


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman June 16, 2022 at 10:19 am

Forget the political party labels — we’re all Democrats now in California, and our own slick, compromised self-servers are running the show.

That’s why we’ve got a Dem-majority State Legislature passing laws that over-ride local municipal zoning authority in favor of dense development in residential neighborhoods, pretending that such anti-CEQA “reform” will provide housing for burgeoning numbers of homeless living on our streets.
That’s why we’ve got city council representatives like Jen Campbell who get elected by saying one thing and then doing another, financed by vested interests who want to drop longstanding coastal zone 40-foot building height limits in order to construct high-rises of fictitious “affordable housing.”
That’s why we’ve been paying millions in rent for an unvetted, hazardous, useless piece of downtown real estate on Ash Street — a deal signed by then-Council president now-Mayor Todd Gloria and City Attorney Mara Elliott, albeit cooked up by former Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer and his former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and benefitting a crony advisor falsely working “pro bono.”
Trees? Parking spaces morphing into bike lanes? “Get-it-done” apps that belie their name? Post-pandemic fallout slamming the economy of central downtown? War-zone appearance of Horton Plaza demolition and its slow reconstruction contributing to the loss of longstanding San Diego Repertory Theater? Forget about all of it. “Business as usual” is the business
of San Diego, no matter who’s in charge.


Frank Gormlie June 16, 2022 at 11:49 am

Sorry, Frances, this was too good not to repost.


Frank J June 16, 2022 at 1:38 pm

Concur. Remember when we were self-labeled ‘America’s Finest City’ ? Sad.


Frances O'Neill Zimmerman June 16, 2022 at 4:50 pm

Actually, I believe that hyperbolic “America’s Finest City” moniker was devised as a marketing cover-up for a San Diego Republican National Convention that flamed out just when ex-Mayor Susan Golding was going to showcase her town and get the nod from GOP power brokers to run for the U.S Senate. We were better then than we are now, for sure, but not by much.


Geoff Page June 16, 2022 at 12:43 pm

I am very interested in this sentence, “Since Widener has been in the job, at least 20 Conserve-a-Tree nominations have been submitted to the City.” I did a Public Records Request for a list of trees nominated for conservation since Widener was hired and I only received three. I would really like to verify what this sentence said.


Maggie McCann June 16, 2022 at 3:32 pm

Trial evidence provided by the City included a PDF document with 17 nominations in it. Add in the 3 nominations from Kensington for the Pepper trees, and 20 nominations have been received by the City in that timeframe that we know of. Several of the nominations were for trees on private property, so not covered by the Public Tree Protection Policy. The City is pretty sloppy in responding to PRAs, if they get around to responding at all.


Celia Conover June 16, 2022 at 4:57 pm

The City’s Urban De-Forester Brian Widener claims to put trees high on their list of importance but his actions speak the real truth.

When he personally decided Kensington’s 37 remaining 110+-yr old mature Calif Pepper trees are “too old” and “near the end of their life” or “a liability” he made no effort to do a deeper analysis than looking at photos of 30 of them and ONLY a Level 1 assessment on 7 of them before lumping them all in as unworthy for heritage status.

In spite of a HUGE turn-out from the community, countless letters and emails to the mayor, our council members and the press requesting they be saved, he has removed 7 so far, 5 of which would potentially have lived another 40+ years — only 2 showed significant decay. This could have been avoided had he cared enough to do a Level 3 analysis which includes a resistance test that would undoubtedly have shown that 5 didn’t need to come out.

We desperately need mature, evergreen shade trees to help offset climate change and cool down the surrounding environment. It’s really as simple as giving these Pepper trees the Level 3 tests they deserve and make every effort possible to save the trees — instead of executing them.

As my husband Dave would quote it’s curing dandruff by decapitation.


Celia Conover June 17, 2022 at 1:00 am

William Howard Taft was President when the Kensington pepper trees were planted in Ken Park in 1910. Population of San Diego was 39,578 — today’s population is 3,295,00. Think of all the people that have come and gone around them, how much carbon dioxide they have absorbed — 48 lbs a year according to Arbor Day Foundation for a mature tree — so over 4,800 lbs over the last 100 years for just one pepper, and 177,600 lbs for all 37 trees that we tried to protect.
Think how much oxygen those 37 trees gifted us in return — then ask yourself what kind of person cuts them down? I won’t say his name but his initials are Brian Widener.


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