The Landmarks Commission will revisit the contentious debate over the significance of two Western Sycamore trees on California Avenue tonight when they consider an application to give the trees protected status in the city. If approved, the trees would become two of five living landmarks in Santa Monica.

Recreation and Parks Commissioner and Wilmont member John C. Smith filed the application to preserve the tree last year. He disagrees with a city report that found the trees have a “lack of historical association” or “noteworthy interest or value.” In fact, he disagrees with the certified arborist who determined there are two intertwined trees on the property, rather than one.

“The staff report is riddled with bias and errors. The California Sycamore often has a split trunk,” Smith told the Daily Press. “Omitting such a well-known fact taints the entire report. They are calling it two trees in a feeble attempt to try and lessen its importance.”

Smith says the tree meets four out of the six criteria to be deemed a landmark. A site only needs to meet one in order to receive a designation.
“There are only three landmarked trees in the city, none of the others are native to the area,” Smith said. “Native tribes like the Tongva used sycamores to create shelters, fire and weapons. No landmarked tree in the city even comes close when it comes to historical and cultural significance.”

The certified arborist who inspected the trees, Jan C. Scow, said they were likely planted around the same time the property was initially developed in 1922 and “make up a significant portion of the dwindling native tree canopy in the area.”

“These two trees are outstanding specimens of their species, and their combined canopy is remarkable and uncommon,” Scow said in his report. The trees are two of 16 native trees in the two-block radius.

The fate of the 80-foot trees has remained in question after multiple postponements. The latest delay happened after local residents Lesley and Iradj Shahriary bought the 5,019 square foot lot at 1122 California Avenue in December for $1.8 million. At the time, Lesley told the Daily Press she plans to keep both the tree and the 100-year-old house on the property, which the previous owner had deemed a teardown.

The assurances did little to assuage the fears of community activists who want to protect the trees from any future development. A previous contractor said it would be difficult to build a new house on the lot without damaging the Sycamores’ sprawling root system.

The trees have become a thorny issue for city staff, who say landmarking a tree without a specific connection to notable Santa Monicans or events could have repercussions for the city’s other 34,000 trees.

“I think every designation sets some precedent for how preservation is practiced in the city,” said Landmarks liaison Stephanie Reich in an interview with the Daily Press. “We think about that any time we do a staff report for any of our boards and commissions, particularly with something so unique as a tree.”

If landmarked, the trees would join just three others in the city: The Moreton Bay Fig at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel, a 60-foot Cedar Deodara at 518 5th Street and a Eucalyptus Cornuta at 1407 Hill Street. Two other landmarked trees died after receiving the designation.

“There have been very few trees in the city designated as City Landmarks,” said the city report. “The trees that have been designated are exceptional in some way and/or associated with the history of the city.”

Reich says she is not aware of any other city that landmarks trees.

The Landmarks Commission will meet tonight, Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m. inside City Council Chambers, Room 213, 1685 Main Street.


Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press