Trees: Without evidence, officials say it will be hard to enforce municipal codes against the illegal work that damaged the trees. Grace Inez Adams

The residents suspected of organizing unauthorized and damaging work to nine city ficus trees on Georgina Avenue earlier this month are unlikely to face consequences. A spokesperson for the City of Santa Monica said that with lack of evidence there is little they can do to enforce the municipal code which states that “no person shall cut, trim, prune” a tree on public land without a city permit.

Residents of three houses on Georgina Avenue are believed by city officials to have hired a private contractor to cut the tops off of the trees to prevent them from dropping small fruits, which they produce several times a year. Urban Forest Supervisor Peter Provenzale said he received multiple complaints from these residents about the trees in the weeks prior to the incident. However, beyond this, the city has no evidence to prove that they actually did it, making it difficult for any form of action to be taken, despite public concern.

“I think it’s just an appallingly egregious kind of disregard for civic order,” said Douglas Spencer, a Santa Monica resident who lives several blocks away from where the incident occurred.

Even if the city were able to confirm its suspicion, Provenzale said the fine the residents could face would be no more than $1,000 per tree, which, especially in a neighborhood where the average home value is north of $4 million, he said doesn’t amount to much more than a minor inconvenience.

Danilo Bach, vice chair of the North of Montana Association (NOMA), the neighborhood where the incident occurred, said he is disheartened by the lack of accountability.

“I’m disappointed in the fact that it’s just sort of a hand slap to the people responsible for this,” he said. “[Especially] because it’s not as though this has taken place in a city that has not been conscious of ecological and tree canopy issues.”

For years Santa Monica has been viewed as the “gold standard” for urban forestry, said Edith de Guzman, a Phd candidate at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who has extensive experience in the field.

“The practices that [Santa Monica] has institutionalized in their urban forest management approach is far and beyond what most other cities in the region have done,” she said.

While Public Landscape Manager Matthew Wells said the city does everything it can to promote the health of the urban tree canopy (UTC), only about 53% of Santa Monica’s trees are on public land, meaning the rest are at the mercy of private landowners.

From 2014 to 2020, UTC on private land in the city decreased by close to 33 acres. During the same time period, public UTC increased, but only by about 6 acres – resulting in a net loss of 27 acres of canopy. Wells estimates this is equivalent to about 2,897 trees. Santa Monica currently has no protections in place for trees on private land, which Wells and Provenzale say limits what the city can do to maintain and grow tree cover. They said the city only has enough space on public land to plant around 2,000 more trees.

“That’s not really going to offset if we’re losing thousands of trees, which we suspect, in the private realm,” Wells said. “We can’t out plant poor tree preservation on private land.”

The main cause of tree loss on private land, according to a study by the city, is development on residential single family lots to expand houses or add accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

“The rate of development with private property trees disappearing is pretty alarming,” Provenzale said. “Single family homes are just being built out on the entire parcel.”

Even if new trees are put in to replace those lost to construction, it takes time before they are able to provide benefits to the same extent as older, mature trees. De Guzman said that while planting new trees is important, this makes it just as important to protect existing ones.

“The really wonderful thing about trees is that they’re a kind of infrastructure that actually appreciates in value as they get older,” she said. “Even if you plant four small trees to try to replace the benefits that one of those trees provides… there’s no comparison.”

Prior to COVID, Wells said an ordinance that would allow for regulation of trees on private property was in the process of receiving consideration from the City Council. It was put on hold when the pandemic broke out, but Wells said it could be brought back if there is enough interest, which Bach of NOMA believes there is.

“NOMA and the board, from what I gather, would be very supportive of it and I think others would too,” he said.

In the meantime, City officials say it is especially important to protect public trees, like the ones along Georgina. Wells urges residents to report any work that they suspect may not be permitted and take photos as evidence so that the municipal code can be enforced if it is found to be a violation.

“Treat it as though you saw someone smashing a bench or breaking glass in public buildings; it’s the same thing in my opinion,” he said.