A battle over the landmark status of two century-old sycamore trees in Wilmont has culminated in a promise from City Council to develop a local law that protects trees on private property.
The fight began in October 2017, when Wilmont resident John C. Smith learned that a developer was going to tear down the house and an intertwined pair of tall, leafy sycamores at 1122 California Ave. The Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition applied to landmark the trees shortly before longtime Santa Monica residents Iradj and Lesley Shahriary bought the house with the intention of demolishing it and building more housing on the lot.
So began six months of passionate debate about whether the trees deserved landmark status.
Dozens of residents and the City of Santa Monica’s consulting arborist said the sycamores are outstanding specimens of their species with a remarkable and uncommon canopy. The Shahriarys and their supporters, however, said there are many similar trees in Wilmont and didn’t understand why they were being singled out to carry the burdens that accompany landmark status. Their daughter, Marya, said the family has no intention of cutting down the tree.
The Landmarks Commission designated the trees last May on the basis that they were noteworthy and familiar in the neighborhood, against the recommendation of City of Santa Monica staff. Staff said the trees are indeed similar to others in the area and are not associated with any historical events.
The Shahriarys appealed the decision last spring and City Council heard their appeal Tuesday. More than 70 people showed up to the hearing to give their opinion – but after hours of public comment, it became clear that the discussion has always been about more than a pair of sycamores.
Santa Monica is losing its urban forest, both sides agreed. However, residents were split on how to preserve it: one faction wanted to use the city’s landmarks ordinance to prevent trees from being cut down to make way for development, while the other felt it was inappropriate to protect trees by landmarking them.
“Santa Monica is losing its stock of aged trees on private land due to development,” Smith wrote on his application almost two years ago.
Council voted 4-2 to take away the trees’ landmark status, but asked staff to negotiate a two-year deed restriction to protect the tree and come up with an ordinance to protect trees on private property without having to give them landmark status.
“We should be able to advocate for large trees whose canopy, even though they’re on private property … because it’s habitat, it’s shade, it cleans the air – all of which have nothing to do with the landmarks ordinance,” said Councilmember Kevin McKeown. “In trying to save this tree with the landmarks ordinance, I feel like we’re fixing a bicycle with a shovel.”
City staff will develop a citywide ordinance to protect significant trees on private property over the next 14 months. City Manager Rick Cole said creating the ordinance will require staff to put some priorities on the backburner.
“It is not a trivial or inexpensive or uncontentious process,” he said.
Smith said although he believes Council should have upheld the Landmarks Commission’s decision, a greater good may come out of the fight to save the trees.
“We said all along that the only way to save a tree in this city is to landmark it, so that’s what we did,” Smith said. “Now, maybe the City will finally do what (McKeown) said should have been done years ago: Create a fair and workable tree ordinance that, instead of saving just one tree, adds protections for many trees.”