Cut: A row of trees on one side of Georgina have been cut back so drastically that their health is endangered and officials want to know who did it. Grace Inez Adams

Nine ficus trees along Georgina Avenue between 22nd and 24th Street are nearly unrecognizable after recently receiving a major, potentially fatal trimming, an incident the city’s Public Landscape Manager Matthew Wells said amounts to vandalism.

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The trees, which line the public median along several blocks in the North of Montana neighborhood (NOMA), are believed by city officials to have been cut by an unauthorized private party earlier this month without a city permit and in violation of the Santa Monica municipal code.

Wells thinks it is likely that the residents of three houses on Georgina Avenue hired a private contractor to essentially chop off the tops of the trees to get rid of the fruit which often causes complaints from residents when it drops into the street. An act which he says is extremely damaging, especially this time of year and in the midst of a heat wave. 

“It’s pretty much the worst time for a ficus tree because they have very thin bark, so if you remove all its foliage and expose the bark to the sun there’s a good chance the bark could get sun scalds and they could die,” he said.

All nine of the trees are Indian Laurel Figs, a type of ficus tree that Wells said the city trims every three years. The city most recently pruned these specific trees in March of this year. 

“Industry guidelines are that you don’t remove any more than 30% of the foliage at one time,” he said. “If you remove more than that then you put the tree at risk – and they removed almost 100%.”

He added that each one of the trees are public assets valued at close to $17,000 and provide significant public environmental benefits. 

“Because they have a very large tree canopy they provide great benefits for the city,” Wells said. “We want shade, we want carbon to be absorbed, we want air pollution to be removed, we want energy bills to be reduced.” 

According to city data, Santa Monica has an urban tree canopy (UTC) of about 12%, meaning only a small portion of the city is covered by foliage. This is less than many other US cities, including New York City, which has a UTC of close to 21%. Studies have shown that larger urban tree canopies result in health benefits and also help to reduce urban heat, especially valuable in the face of climate change.

Despite past complaints, the City does not trim the trees beyond a point that would damage them. 

The NOMA neighborhood has the largest UTC in Santa Monica, at 22%, however it is also losing trees at the fastest rate, according to the City’s data. From 2014 to 2020, the neighborhood lost 17.4 acres of tree canopy, an almost 2% decrease. 

Wells said he attributes this loss primarily to private development. 

“We see a lot of smaller houses being removed and replaced by much bigger ones and trees are often lost during that process,” he said. “So that means that the canopy cover that street trees provide is even more important because a lot of the trees in back gardens are being replaced by ADUs (accessory dwelling units) or extensions to people’s homes.”

Wells said the Public Landscape Division will be reaching out to the property owners of the homes on Georgina where the trees were cut, but he is more interested in identifying the contractor who did the work. 

“They did work without a permit and they did work that isn’t recognized as being industry standard,” he said. “We don’t require a permit just because we want to be difficult, we require it because we need to check that companies are properly insured and qualified.”

Wells emphasized that he thinks it is important people know that this work was not done by the city and it is not something they would ever allow to be done. 

“This is vandalism, it’s not tree work within the industry at all,” he said. “It’s very disappointing that anyone would do this type of work to these very important trees.” 

grace@smdp.com