Two newly landmarked Sycamore trees on California Avenue will have another day in the sun after the property owner appealed their special status in the city. Longtime residents Iradj and Lesley Shahriary argue the Landmarks Commission’s 4-2 decision to make the trees at 1122 California Avenue living landmarks was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The Shahriary family says they unwittingly waded into city politics when they bought the property from a developer in December, who had deemed the 100-year-old house on the lot a teardown. At that point, Wilmont Board Member John C. Smith had already filed an application to landmark the native trees. In May, the Landmarks Commission made the designation officially, making the Sycamores the sixth and seventh trees to ever be landmarked in Santa Monica.
The appeal filed by the Shahriary’s daughter, Marya, specifically takes aim at Santa Monica’s municipal code, calling the landmark criteria “unconstitutional as it is vague and entirely subjective.” In order to be deemed a landmark, a structure or tree only needs to meet one out of six criteria. In this case, the commissioners found the trees met two: having “noteworthy interest or value” and a “familiar visual feature of a neighborhood.”
“Under either of those two criteria, any structure, improvement, natural feature or object in Santa Monica could be considered a landmark,” Marya Shahriary wrote in the appeal. While the Shahriary family has promised to protect the tree, their appeal argues the landmark designation will impede the production of additional housing in the midst of a statewide crisis.
“Appellants assert that this designation has ulterior motives, including the thwarting of this property’s potential redevelopment,” the appeal said.
Indeed, Smith (who is a Recreation and Parks Commissioner) filed the application to landmark the trees last October to save them from potential redevelopment. At the time, the owner of the property told the Daily Press the 100-year-old house on the property was a “tear down” and any redevelopment would likely damage the trees’ extensive root system.
Smith says he anticipated the appeal and is prepared to argue for the trees before City Council. A hearing date has not yet been set.
“Frankly, I’m not surprised. It always takes twice as long and twice the effort to get something worthwhile done in our city,” Smith said. “The Landmarks Commission reached their decision very carefully and according to code…If the owner of the 1122 California Sycamore truly wanted to save it, they would welcome the designation instead of appealing it.
Smith argues the designation will enhance the property value for the Shahriarys in the long run, and that the landmark status is not a burden.
It is still unclear what obligations come with the ownership of a landmark tree. The Landmarks Commission has yet to determine the protection zone around the trees or stipulate how the Shahriary’s must maintain them. A City-commissioned arborist recommended a 15-foot radius around the two trunks for a “root protection zone.” In addition, the trees would likely require an annual inspection and pruning on a 3-5 year cycle.
In evaluating the Sycamores, arborist found the trees are outstanding specimens for their species with a remarkable and uncommon canopy. The arborist found 153 “mature and notable” trees in the surrounding two blocks, including 21 sycamores, but noted the now-landmarked trees are the largest and oldest native trees in that area.
Joseph C. Gilbert, a Southern Counties Gas Company employee, likely planted the trees around 1922. Gilbert brought the house along with his family when he bought the lot, transporting the home from 5th Street to California Avenue. Gilbert was an active Santa Monican, serving as president of the local Rotary Club. He sold the home shortly after his wife, Bess, died in 1946. The family of John Cornish, a local artist, sold the property to a developer last year, who deemed the home on the site a teardown. The developer then sold the home to the Shahriary family after a raucous Landmarks Commission meeting in December concerning the fate of the trees.
There are only three other living landmark trees in Santa Monica, including most notably the Morton Bay Fig outside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel.