Canary Island date palms line 18th Street in the North of Montana neighborhood. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

NOMA — Sometimes, being on the cutting edge can be more trouble than it’s worth.

When City Hall committed to creating its master plan to guide tree replacement in Santa Monica, it chose to put uncommon trees on streets throughout the city.

The problem: Uncommon trees often aren’t cultivated en masse by nurseries because of lack of demand.

That’s causing friction between City Hall and residents, who demand that the trees designated for their street be palms that officials are having difficulty finding.

Diversification is critical, said City Forester Walt Warriner, so that trees are protected against the spread of disease, which can devastate municipal trees when too many of the same kind get planted.

“If you have one species of tree that gets infected with a pathogen or insect, it can wipe out a large portion of the urban forest,” Warriner said. “We’re experiencing that with the Canary Island date palm right now.”

The palm trees, which were extensively planted on Georgina and Marguerita avenues and between 17th and 22nd streets, have a tendency to spread a fungus called fusarium, which causes the fronds to wilt and turn brown.

Those trees have been there for over 75 years, said Randy Little, public landscape manager with City Hall.

“As far as we can tell from historical photos, Georgina and Marguerita and between 18th and 21st street have always been palms,” he said.

Many of those trees are in decline because of the fungus, Warriner said, and the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force was charged with the responsibility of selecting trees to replace them.

The trees selected — broad leaf trees, like Torrey pines and sycamores — drew the ire of community members who protested the replacement of what they consider iconic palms with the big, leafy trees.

One group, which in April led the charge to stop the planting of sycamores on Georgina and Marguerita avenues, successfully negotiated with city officials to substitute the existing palms with a different palm species, called the Chilean wine palm, as the current trees die.

A second group of neighbors — who represent the streets of 21st north of Montana Avenue, 18th north of Washington Avenue and Marguerita Avenue between 17th and 22nd streets — have not had the same level of success.

“We do not have a commitment from the city to replace palms with comparable palms on those three streets,” said Patricia Bauer, a resident of 20th Street.

Three palms have been identified for the other sections of Marguerita and Georgina avenues — the Chilean wine, Washingtonia robusta and Phoenix dactylifera — but the neighbors Bauer represents have had no such commitments.

“We’ve been very clear, very direct,” Bauer said.

Coming up with the suggested trees has been difficult, said Barbara Stinchfield, director of community and cultural services.

“Other species are slow-growing, and hard to get,” Stinchfield said. “Another species is also susceptible to disease … It’s very difficult because of the susceptibility of trees that are most compatible, and the lack of availability of others.”

Palms don’t grow very quickly, particularly the Chilean wine palm, which is the prime candidate to replace the ailing Canary Island date variety.

They’re just not profitable for nurseries to carry, Warriner said, because there’s no demand and the trees take a long time and a lot of resources to grow.

“We’ve secured 150 already, and there’s another 50 in the nursery that we know of,” Warriner said. “That’s the guesstimate that’s floating around somewhere. We’re continuing to pursue more.”

Unfortunately, they need 300 trees to fill out the “problem area” on Marguerita Avenue between 17th and 22nd streets, and then a continual supply to replace the Canary Island palms that are planted throughout the city.

Trees only get replaced once they’ve reached the end of their normal lifespan, Warriner said.

City officials have searched throughout the region — in the past, even as far as Florida and Hawaii — for replacement palms, with little success.

They haven’t given up, however.

“It just makes the achievement on a longer time frame,” Warriner said. “We’re shopping around for trees, and encouraging nurseries to grow trees we’re specifying for specific streets.”

Had the Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force chosen to move forward with the replacement of palms with sycamores and Torrey pines, it wouldn’t have been out of place in the Santa Monica treescape, Warriner said.

“Landscaping is very subjective when it comes to aesthetics, but let me just point out that Santa Monica has a long history of planting broad leaf and conifers in between palm trees,” he said.

Various city streets intersperse cedar, eucalyptus and purple leaf plum in between palms, he said.

The Urban Forest Master Plan Task Force will hold two more community input-driven meetings on Sept. 7 and 14 in the Virginia Avenue Park Thelma Terry Building at 6:30 p.m.

Residents will receive a mailer with instructions on how to log onto the website to see what kind of tree has been designated for their street.

They can also request a copy of the draft replacement tree list from City Hall.

Comments on selections can be made at the workshops, through mail or e-mail, Stinchfield said.

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