Two intertwined Sycamore trees in the front yard of a home on California Avenue have become the sixth and seventh trees to receive landmark status in Santa Monica after the neighborhood rallied to protect the native trees from any future development. In a 4-2 decision, the Landmarks Commission found the trees have “noteworthy interest or value” and are a “familiar visual feature of a neighborhood,” two of the six criteria needed to become a landmark here.

Over the past six months, a debate over whether the trees deserved the distinction became a lightning rod, revealing a split between vocal residents and city staff over whether the trees met the standard (the official city report said they did not). A passionate group of three dozen environmentalists, arborists, neighbors and members of the family who purchased the lot at 1122 California Avenue packed City Hall late into the night Monday to see where the Commission would stand.

“It was a good old-fashioned local political battle and the tree will be around another 100 or 200 years because of it,” said Wilmont Board member and Parks Commissioner John C. Smith, who filed the application to landmark the trees. “Residents did this. People who care got involved and got busy.”

When Smith got involved in October, the tree was under threat from development. A contractor for the owner told the Daily Press the 100-year-old home on the lot was a teardown and any new construction would likely damage the trees’ extensive root system, which is likely as wide as the 80-foot canopy. The developer sold the property to a local family after a raucous Landmarks Commission meeting in December about the tree.

“If it weren’t for you, this tree would be firewood already,” Smith told the five-member commission Monday.

The new owners, longtime Santa Monica residents Lesley and Iradj Shahriary, asked for the matter to be postponed while they learned more about the landmark process. In the meantime, rather than demolish the home they decided to remodel and promised to keep the tree. The Shahriary family, however, did not think their new tree deserved special status in the city.

“I think this group of very passionate and vocal people, they’re passionate about an issue that is moot because the tree is not being torn down and the house is not being torn down,” said Lesley and Iradj’s daughter, Marya Shahriary, Monday.

Up until this week, only five trees have been landmarked here, most notably the Moreton Bay Fig at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard. Two of the landmarked trees have died.

“Rarity was mentioned in regard to every other tree,” said the family’s lawyer, Thomas Nitti. “There certainly is no rarity here.”

There are 21 Sycamore trees in the surrounding neighborhood. In 2008, the Landmarks Commission rejected an application to landmark the Ficus trees on Second and Fourth Streets between Colorado Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, saying there were better examples of the species elsewhere in Santa Monica.

The most compelling moment, however, came when the Shahriary’s grandson walked up to the podium to address the commission. The young boy asked if he would be allowed to build a swing or a treehouse in a city landmark. He complained a landmarked tree is no fun.

When it came to the Commission to have their say, Chair Pro-tem Dolores Sloan assured the family they would be able to enjoy the Sycamores without fear of city sanctions.

“The children of this family playing on this tree will not hurt the tree,” Sloan said. Sloan made the motion to approve Smith’s application based on two of the six landmark criteria.

Multiple commissioners said they based their decision on the arborist hired by the city, who wrote the Sycamores “are the largest and oldest in their local neighborhood” and called them “exceptional.” It was the exact same report city staff used to determine the trees were not landmarks.

“It’s all opinions and that’s what we deal in,” said Chair Laura O’Neal, who criticized both sides for cherry-picking information to support their argument. “This is a perfect example of why we need to work on our ordinance. It should not be this difficult to make determinations.”

Now that they are landmarked, the trees will be back before the commission next month to determine a protection zone and other maintenance requirements for the Shahriary family.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press