ENCINITAS — Finger pointing was rampant during a staff report on the recent removal of trees from a neighborhood park at the City Council meeting March 11.
Following a presentation by Chris Hazeltine, director of the Parks and Recreation department, regarding the reasoning behind removing 11 trees at Orpheus Park in Leucadia, more than a dozen speakers sounded off in support of a policy that included more public input on matters of such significance.
Former Mayor Sheila Cameron lambasted the decision to remove the trees. “I sort of feel like there was a deliberate move on the part of this staff to circumvent the system and process and ignore the citizens,” she said.
Hazeltine said the trees were removed to accommodate the ocean view of nearby condo owners. A complaint was made last fall by the Ocean Point homeowners association regarding the maintenance of the trees, according to Mayor Maggie Houlihan. “We met them in November when I was a council person,” she said. “Nothing was decided at this meeting,” she told the audience.
The city has been contracting to have the trees trimmed every three months at taxpayer expense for 16 years according to Hazeltine. The removal cost of the current project was approximately $6,400.
Initially, staff said the decision to remove the trees was 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.
However, in his report to the council, Hazeltine said the city was obligated to remove the trees based on minutes from a 1990 Planning Commission meeting that mentioned protecting view corridors of neighboring residents and not negatively impacting property values.
Van Parker, who lives a quarter-mile from the park, said he came to different conclusion when reading the same minutes from the Planning Commission meeting from 1990. “Did we look at the impact of the trees on the property values?” he asked.
Nick Ashcroft, a Vista resident who served as a planning commissioner in that city, said he supported the staff decision because it reveals the spectacular ocean view. He said he regularly goes to the park with his daughter. “To be honest with you I think you should remove a few more of the trees, and open up the center of the park,” he said.
“I’m not interested in giving a few condo owners a view but I’m interested in enjoying the park for the attributes that it offers,” Ashcroft said.
Gail Hano, a former councilmember during the time period the park was approved, said she was surprised by the removal of the park trees. “We are a city of trees,” she told the council. “We love trees.”
Hano also reminded the council that basing the decision to remove the trees on an order to protect a view was not supported by law. “We don’t have a view ordinance,” she said. 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.
City Council said the incident was eye-opening. “Who’s at fault?” asked Councilman Jerome Stocks. “I guess all of us.” He said he hoped a clearly defined tree policy would prohibit further situations in the future.
Councilwoman Teresa Barth, who called City Manager Phil Cotton prior to the removal to request a reprieve in order to allow public comment, said she was embarrassed by the way the process was handled. “How can you take down trees in Leucadia oand not think it’s going to be controversial?” she said she asked Cotton and Hazeltine. “We as a council were never informed that this process was coming to pass.”
Councilman Dan Dalager, who lives close to the park, said he saw the signs in January but decided not to get involved.