Pedestrians walk underneath the ficus trees along Fourth Street on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — The Santa Monica Treesavers scored a victory on Tuesday when the City Council voted to establish a new task force that would advise on the development of an urban forest master plan.

The new task force, joining the long list of boards and commissions that advise the council, will be responsible for helping city officials as they develop a long-range master plan concerning tree matters, including an updated inventory, maintenance requirements and an assessment of the environmental benefits of an urban forest.

The decision comes after a group of residents and business owners rallied against a controversial plan that called for the removal and transplantation of 54 ficus trees from Downtown Santa Monica. Following a series of court appeals and council hearings, all of which ruled on City Hall’s side, the plan was scaled back to affect only 23 trees identified as structurally deficient from Second and Fourth streets.

The seven-member committee will be comprised of individuals from the community, a change from the original staff recommendation that the task force be made up of representatives from the Recreation and Parks Commission, Environmental Task Force, Sustainable City Task Force, Planning Commission, Landmarks Commission and two volunteer residents. Councilmembers said they encouraged members of those commissions to apply, but wanted to leave the positions undesignated.

Councilwoman Gleam Davis said that many board members are already busy with their own meetings and might not have time to serve on the task force. She pointed out that while serving on the Planning Commission, there were times when members would meet up to three times a week, especially when it concerned the Land Use and Circulation Element, the 20-year update to the city’s general plan.

“Adding another meeting to those busy schedules might not work out,” she said.

City staff explored three different options, including forming a subcommittee of the Recreation and Parks Commission and a separate urban forest commission, which would advise the council on the management of the long-range master plan. The commission could be created out of the master plan.

The Santa Monica Treesavers first made the request to form a commission last year that would advise on urban forestry matters, arguing that it would open up a public input process that they believed lacked during the ficus tree controversy several years ago.

The council’s action was applauded by several Treesavers, though some added they would like to see the task force expanded by a few members.

“I think this is a good first step toward the eventual establishment of the much-needed advisory Santa Monica tree commission,” Jerry Rubin, the co-founder of the Treesavers, said.

Kathy Knight said that she would like to see a commission that had an equal number of residents, city staff and Recreation and Parks Commission members.

The Sunset Park resident said that she did not get involved in Santa Monica issues much until the Treesavers formed in 2007.

“Not only are (trees) beautiful, but the development is so tight, so dense that it’s just (gridlock) everywhere I go,” she said. “These trees are taking that carbon dioxide from those cars and turning them into oxygen.”

In developing their recommendations, city staff surveyed approximately 30 cities that are members of professional organizations concerning urban forests, including Beverly Hills, Claremont, Davis, Palo Alto and West Hollywood. The survey found that approximately 17 percent of respondents have a committee of City Councilmembers that oversee urban forest matters, while approximately 10 percent have a tree subcommittee within a commission.

Mayor Ken Genser said that City Hall will ultimately need a urban forestry commission in place.

“There are so many matters and decisions that need to be made after a plan is in place … that we need some public review on that,” he said.

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