ENCINITAS — The removal of trees in a neighborhood park set off a firestorm of criticism aimed mostly at City Hall. Chainsaws were revved up to cut down 11 trees at Orpheus Park in Leucadia on Jan. 30, as neighbors and schoolchildren gathered along with city staff and Councilwoman Teresa Barth.
City officials said the trees were removed to accommodate the ocean view of nearby condo owners. A complaint was made last fall by one of the Ocean Point condo owners about the encroachment of the trees on ocean views according to Mayor Maggie Houlihan. “We met them in November when I was a council person,” she said. “We didn’t make any promises.”
The city has been contracting to have the trees trimmed every three months at taxpayer expense for several years. The removal cost of the current project was approximately $6,000.
Based on an oral agreement between a former city employee and the condo association not to allow views to be encroached when the park was constructed in the early 1990s, Chris Hazeltine, the city’s Park’s and Recreation director, said the city was obligated to remove the trees.
Onlookers were surprised to see a man sitting on a platform inside one of the trees. Andrew Watkins, an Oceanside resident, said he was protesting the city’s removal of the trees. Sheriffs were present but declined to forcibly remove Watkins after speaking with Hazeltine. As of Feb. 4, Watkins remained in the tree except for taking an occasional restroom break.
Councilwoman Teresa Barth said she tried to stall the removal when she learned of the plan earlier in the week but was told by City Manager Phil Cotton that it would move forward as planned. “We needed to have some public discussion about this issue,” she said. “This is an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. The city is enforcing an oral agreement that isn’t supported by city law.”
While the city’s general plan speaks to the importance of maintaining “view corridors,” there is no municipal code that prohibits landscaping from encroaching on views.
While workers removed 10 trees shading the tot-lot and surrounding grassy areas, another crew planted 22 young trees in a cluster on the southern edge of the park.
“This just seems ridiculous to me,” Josh Sharp, a local resident, said. “If the city had an agreement with the condo association, why didn’t they write it down?” he asked. “I really think it goes a long way to build distrust between the residents and the city.”