Trees: After the illegal trimming of trees in the NOMA neighborhood, the city is considering new options. SMDP Photo

More than a month after nine trees in the North of Montana neighborhood were illegally and harmfully pruned in an act of what Santa Monica Public Landscape Manager Matthew Wells has called “vandalism,” several residents of neighboring homes have come forward to say they saw the work being done, but are unable to provide details about the contractor.

While the unknown identity of the contractor means the City cannot take any legal action against them, the question remains of whether or not the residents of three houses on Georgina Avenue believed to have organized the work will face any consequences.

The matter was discussed at this month’s North of Montana Neighborhood Association (NOMA) meeting on Thursday Nov. 3. Board Member Elizabeth Lerer expressed concern about the lack of ramifications for the home owners.

“I’m worried about this, if there were no consequences for the people who did the nine trees, if there is nothing done to what is basically illegal – what prevents other people from doing this in the future?” she said.

The Georgina trees are located on public land and are considered a City asset, with an estimated combined value of $150,000.

“Since we don’t have a private property tree ordinance, I would say our public trees are even more valuable,” Lerer added.

While Santa Monica has long been lauded for its robust urban forestry plan, the lack of any form of a private tree ordinance means there is no legal protection for trees on private land – meaning landowners can prune, trim and chop them as they wish.

The prospect of this type of ordinance has been floated before and prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic the Urban Forestry Task Force had been working on a version of one to go before the City Council.

“The previous Council had authorized the Urban Forest Task force Staff to investigate an ordinance like that,” Task Force Vice Chair Thomas Cleys said. “[We] got to the point where it was in staff hands… but then COVID happened and all the budget cuts happened so the whole thing got shelved.”

He said they are working to get it on the agenda this year and hope the way it has been written will make it likely to be approved by focusing on protecting specific types of trees in certain locations instead of trying to outright ban cutting down any private tree.

“We are looking at trying to protect trees of certain species and sizes that are outside of the buildable area on any lot,” Cleys said. “So we’re trying to do something that wouldn’t impact what people could build on their property, but would still give some protection because so much of the urban forest is not on public land.”

Only about 53% of the urban tree canopy in Santa Monica is on public land. In light of the recent Georgina incident and with increasing awareness about the value of trees, especially as climate change continues to bring on hotter temperatures, Cleys said he feels there would be community support for such an ordinance. But he added that it will be important to approach it in a tactful manner that allows for public input.

“With Santa Monica being focused on the environment, global warming, etcetera – it seems like this issue should be pretty well embraced,” he said. “But because it does get involved with private property, a lot of people are going to have questions and they need an opportunity to ask those questions.”

He estimates the process could take between six months to a year.

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