Canary Island date palms that line Marguerita Avenue could be infected by a fungus. City officials are working on a plan to protect them and plant replacement trees for those that die.

(photo by Brandon Wise)

NOMA — What if Santa Monica planted a tree, but nobody wanted it?

The seemingly unlikely scenario reared its head in this tree-hugging city when officials told residents of Georgina and Marguerita avenues that dying Canary Island date palms would be replaced with California native sycamore trees.

“We were mildly distressed,” said resident Margaret Bach, who also serves on the Landmarks Commission. “Through frantic phone calls and e-mails, we were able to suspend the planting process within days of when they were going to start.”

Upset, a group complained at the April 12 City Council meeting, and council directed staff to come back with an information item describing how, exactly, the process had been conducted.

The results of that inquiry, posted to the City Hall website last week, describe a process with little public inquiry and a lot of miscommunication.

According to the information item, the sycamore had been chosen for Georgina and Marguerita avenues based on the size of the streets, size of existing canopies and health and condition of existing trees, which was none too good.

Several of the Canary Island date palms already in place were suffering from a fungal infection, in part because the trees passed the disease back and forth, city officials said.

Staff decided to plant sycamores to increase the tree canopy and improve the chances of the remaining palms avoiding the fusarium fungus.

Those criteria stemmed in part from a separate tree initiative launched in August of last year by the City Council in partnership with the South Coast Air Quality Management District that funded the purchase of 1,000 native drought resistant California trees in Santa Monica.

Those trees, like the sycamores that almost found their way into palm territory, are part of a study with the United States Forest Service’s Center for Urban Forest Research.

A main objective of that study is to record tree growth and then measure how much carbon is taken out of the atmosphere by publicly-owned and managed trees.

Santa Monica’s public works division has already planted 274 of the trees in non-residential public areas like the Woodlawn Cemetery and two beach parking lots, wrote Public Landscape Manager Randy Little in an e-mail.

City Hall’s Urban Forest Task Force is looking at ways to integrate some of the other 700 trees into a selection process that will identify tree species that can be planted on Santa Monica streets as other existing trees die or need to be removed.

A subcommittee of that task force creates its own criteria for trees for each street, said Barbara Stinchfield, director of community and cultural services.

“It depends street by street, and they apply the criteria for that street given the characteristics of the street,” Stinchfield said. “They’ve spent hundreds of hours going through how they made those proposals, based on grow space, existing species and if those species are healthy and thriving.”

In some cases, the committee is recommending that the same tree be planted. In others, like Georgina and Marguerita avenues, it’s not.

Those recommendations will be vetted in three upcoming meetings in May and June, with a special sneak preview at the Santa Monica Festival on Saturday.

Based on those pre-determined criteria, the sycamore had been selected to intermix with the still-healthy palms on Georgina and Marguerita.

“The city was going to interplant our street trees, which are mostly Canary Island date palm trees with sycamores,” Bach said. “Many of us love sycamores, but we were shocked on two counts.”

The first: That the plan had been implemented with no discussion, and the second that the sycamores were so wildly out of place with the existing trees.

In the information item, staff acknowledge that they should have discussed the matter with residents before deciding to go ahead with the planting.

Since, representatives of the two streets have met with city staff and found a more acceptable replacement tree for the street — the Chilean wine date palm.

City foresters have also helped develop a plan to take care of the still-healthy Canary Island date palms.

“We feel that the partnership evolving between our neighborhood and the city in terms of the maintenance issues and caring for the trees can be a nice model for other neighborhoods,” Bach said.

Santa Monicans who care about what trees show up on their blocks should attend upcoming meetings of the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force. The first meeting is May 21 at 10:30 a.m. in the Main Library multipurpose room.

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