Point Loma Residents Drop Lawsuit Against City Over Removal of Palm Trees – City Attorney Continues Myth About Why They Were Chopped Down

by on February 2, 2023 · 6 comments

in Ocean Beach

The San Diego City Attorney’s office just announced today that the Point Loma couple who had sued the city over its removal of historic Palm trees has dropped the suit.

John and Tracy Van de Walker had sued the City in federal court to prevent the trees from being cut down, claiming violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. They then dismissed that suit and filed a new action in state court alleging the City cannot cut down the trees under the San Diego Municipal Code and Council Policy.

But on January 27 this year, the Van de Walker Plaintiffs filed a Request for Dismissal in San Diego Superior Court. No reason was given in the CA’s announcement. City Attorney Mara Elliott jumped for joy and called it a “meritless lawsuit” that forced her office “to respond to a frivolous claim.”

The OB Rag covered the controversy since its beginning in October of 2021 and our reporter Geoff Page wrote extensive reports on the real reasons the city wanted to cut the trees down.

In her statement, CA Mara Elliott continued the myth that the “Federal Aviation Administration and San Diego Airport Authority ordered the City to remove several tall palm trees because their height exceeded the safety limit, as required by federal law,” and that the “palm trees … posed potential flight safety hazards to airplanes using San Diego International Airport.”

She also claimed OB residents were notified of the scheduled removal.

On April 25, 2022, the city destroyed the Palms. (Here’s Geoff Page‘s report with photos.)

When the city initially began cutting them down in October 2021, they city handed out a”notification” letter  to Point Loma residents while the Palms were meeting the buzzsaw.

As outraged neighbors gathered — some protesting with signs — the city forester threatened the use of force if residents got in the way of the chopping crews. After 5 were cut down, there was a pause as the legal suit proceeded. A GoFundMe page was set up to assist in covering legal fees.

Finally, Page wrote that the City and its Forester misrepresented ‘Immediate Safety Hazard’ in effort to remove the trees.

Plus, on April 28, 2022, he posted that the “City Is Caught In Another Lie About the Point Loma Palm Trees : The FAA Did Not Mandate Their Cutting Down.” A local TV station, KUSI, covered the issue continually and spoke to pilots who claimed the Palms were no danger to aviation safety.

This is all water under the bridge, but here’s Elliott now — and clearly not considering Page’s point — claiming it was the FAA and the Airport Authority that had ordered the City to remove the trees because “their height exceeded the safety limit …”


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Page February 2, 2023 at 12:05 pm

The main point to take away from this is that the FAA did not mandate removal of the trees. We asked them and they said they did not. That was documented. This was between the airport and the city. The airport gave the city justification for removing tall palms they did not want to maintain anymore. I am still suspicious of the airport’s future flight path plans after they finish doubling the size of Terminal One.

Elliott “jumped for joy” because she no longer had to defend a suit she probably would have lost. Discovery would have been fun. It’s unfortunate that the suit was dropped but it was probably money. It’s expensive for private citizens to finance a lawsuit against a public entity with bottomless pockets.


retired botanist February 2, 2023 at 5:52 pm

Don’t even know what to say here. The egregiousness is so transparent. And it ends up always being about litigation and $, and the public constituency never wins. There are SO MANY things wrong with this chronology. For those interested, google “Do trees have rights as plaintiffs in court?”- just too many to link here, but since actual humans seem unable to advocate on behalf of trees, these PsOV have a lot of merit. Seriously.
As mentioned in threads from the past, from a technical botanical standpoint, palms aren’t actually trees in the full sense, and I’m surprised some legal a’holes haven’t actually argued that point, but it is a total sidebar to the issue: The palms, under Master plans and other binding documents, were embedded features, not to mention monetary assets of the City’s, and the City just decided, with the faux curtain of FAA- unilaterally- that they couldn’t be bothered with the upkeep. In the greater schemes, like the unsheltered and the public restrooms, this seems like a petty topic, but it absolutely epitomizes the override and negation of your hard work and effort, as taxpayers and community members, in creating the documents you want to reflect the guidelines and ordinances of your community. Those palms were documented and conserved as part of the essential viewshed in master plans for the area. What a horrible, deplorable outcome. Once again, shouldn’t trees be their own plaintiffs? Nobody else seems able to speak for them. :-(


Geoff Page February 3, 2023 at 2:26 pm

Very well said, retired.


Frank Gormlie February 3, 2023 at 2:41 pm

Retired botanist, I know you fought to save trees in OB a few years back, and deeply appreciate your viewpoint here.


Peter from South O February 3, 2023 at 5:23 pm

KNSD reports that the City is petitioning the court to award the City court costs.
“In a statement sent out Thursday, City Attorney Mara Elliott said her office planned on petitioning the court to order the couple to reimburse San Diego for legal costs associated with defending the case.”

“Meritless lawsuits like this one harm taxpayers by bogging down our overcrowded courts and forcing City staff and attorneys to respond to a frivolous claim,” Elliott is quoted as saying. “We will petition the court to order the Van de Walkers to reimburse the city for the costs it incurred defending itself.”


Geoff Page February 20, 2023 at 9:49 pm

It really is a shame that the local newspaper, The Peninsula Beacon, continues to print stories that are either poorly written or intentionally slanted. The lead paragraph in its February 10 article on the historic Newport trees was so ridiculous that I tend to lean toward the latter. The February 10 story began with:

“A lawsuit against the City challenging the cutting down of palm trees on Newport Avenue considered a possible threat to incoming aircraft has been dismissed in court as frivolous.”

The case was not dismissed, it was dropped – by the plaintiffs – John and Tracy Van De Walker. Dropping a case is a request for dismissal by the people bringing the lawsuit. The way the Beacon worded this would give the readers the impression the case was dismissed by the courts. That was not accurate. The “frivolous” adjective came from Mara Elliott’s opinion of the lawsuit, it did not come from the court. The wording, “dismissed in court as frivolous,” was misleading and wrong.

Then, four paragraphs later into the story, the article stated “Recently, Elliott announced that neighbors lawsuit over the removal of the Newport palms had been dropped.” This contradicted the lead paragraph, the most important paragraph in a news story.

The description of the trees as just “palm trees” was inaccurate. These were historic palm trees, that’s why there was a lawsuit. The writer had to know these were historic trees, not saying so made the trees appear common, perhaps intentionally.

At the end of the article, there was a sidebar box titled “TREE TIMELINE.” In that box, the Beacon perpetuated the fiction that the FAA ordered the trees removed. Inside was this wording:

“The dispute over the Newport palms began in 2021 when the Federal Aviation Administration and San Diego Airport Authority ordered the city to remove several tall palm tress because their height exceeded the safety limit…”

The FAA DID NOT order removal of any trees, we proved that here in The Rag stories. Yet, here is the Beacon repeating this discredited information.

Sloppy reporting or intentionally slanted, articles like this do a disservice to people looking for accurate information.


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