24th STREET — A family is struggling to save a landmarked tree slated for destruction Friday that has stood in place for almost 100 years, but which arborists say is falling apart at the seams.
Faith and Harry Rumack, who own the 100-foot-tall tree, received a notice from Santa Monica Code Compliance Aug. 24 saying that the tree was a danger and must be removed by Sept. 15.
If not, they could be charged between $5,000 and $25,000 a day, according to the notice.
The family was shocked, because they’d always been told that the tree was in good condition, Faith Rumack said.
“Everyone in the neighborhood loves that tree,” she said. “Classes come from (Santa Monica College) and UCLA and gather around the tree.”
The tree, a eucalyptus deanei, is the largest known specimen. It received landmark status in July 2003.
Bob Hansen, a certified arborist, reviewed the tree for its landmark application. Two books refer to the tree specifically, and it’s called “one of the most regal trees in the City of Santa Monica,” Hansen wrote.
“Santa Monica is fortunate to have this tree to care for and enjoy,” Hansen wrote.
The Rumacks put it up for landmarking to protect the tree in case future neighbors wanted to do construction on the property next door that threatened the tree or its root system, which stretches far from the Rumacks’ property, said Walt Warriner, the Santa Monica Community Forester.
Warriner participated in that hearing, and signed off on the tree’s bill of health.
He wouldn’t do the same today.
“If someone came to me now and asked to landmark the tree, it wouldn’t qualify for landmark status,” Warriner said.
The trouble with the tree began in July when three branches fell off within two weeks, and neighbors who share a property line with the Rumacks called the office for help.
At first, it looked like a fairly typical case. Tree limbs become more fragile in summer months when it’s hot outside and there’s less moisture present in the tree, Warriner said.
The second fallen limb, however, showed signs of what Warriner called “decay fungi.”
“At that point, I was just going to suggest they prune it and cut the whole remaining limb off to get rid of the decay,” Warriner said.
When the third limb fell, however, evidence of the fungi was marked.
Warriner called in Lisa Smith, a registered consulting arborist, to come give a second opinion on the tree.
Smith was hoisted into the tree to get a good look at the top and reported that the extent of the damage caused by decay was extensive, Warriner said.
Given that the third ex-limb weighed approximately 2,000 pounds, leaving the tree intact was more of a danger than Warriner could condone.
“I don’t like saying that a tree needs to be removed. It’s one of my least favorite things to do,” Warriner said. “My very least favorite thing to do is to have a limb fall on a car, or fall off on a house or go to the hospital because someone was hurt when a tree fell because I knew better.”
Warriner believes the problem can be explained by a bad pruning practice called a “stub cut,” or when a branch is cut off at a point where the tree cannot handle the wound appropriately.
Fungi get in, feed on the wood and the tree doesn’t have the ability to wall it off.
Over time, the tree grows back out and produces new tissue and new wood that covers up the inner problem. It turns the tree into a Twinkie, Warriner said.
“It looks good on the outside, but it’s mushy in the inside,” he said.
Faith Rumack remains concerned that a procedure six or seven years ago in which some roots of the tree were cut is to blame for its weakened condition.
She and her husband have been working to get a third arborist to come out and evaluate the tree before Friday, when she has a company lined up to begin the multi-day process of removing the tree.
“We’re doing all we can, exploring all of the possibilities to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Faith Rumack said. “We’re working at this day and night.”
It appears that the Landmarks Commission can’t intervene on behalf of the tree and, in fact, wasn’t informed of its imminent demise.
Public safety concerns override landmarking considerations, said Scott Albright, a planner with City Hall and liaison to the Landmarks Commission.