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Ocean Beach residents protest removing eight tall palm trees

Ocean Beach residents protest the city of San Diego’s plan to cut down several palm trees in their neighborhood.
A group of Ocean Beach residents gather Oct. 21 at the corner of Santa Barbara Street and Santa Monica Avenue protest the city of San Diego’s plan to cut down several palm trees in their neighborhood.
(Kristian Carreon)

San Diego city and airport officials say the trees could interfere with airplane sensors used during inclement weather.

For decades, towering palm trees have lined the streets of Ocean Beach.

Longtime residents describe the trees as iconic and say they are part of the fabric of the seaside community. It was this deep appreciation, residents say, that motivated about two dozen people to protest Oct. 21 against removing eight trees.

The palms in question are along Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street and are about 70 feet tall, residents say. It’s their height that’s causing the problem.

Every five to 10 years, San Diego International Airport conducts a survey to ensure that no obstacles protrude so far into the sky that they could interfere with the sensitive navigation sensors pilots rely on to fly when visibility is low. How much space planes need to fly safely in those circumstances isn’t determined by the airport — it’s a buffer zone the Federal Aviation Administration sets.

Airport and San Diego city officials said the survey, which took about two years, found that the eight Ocean Beach palms, and about a dozen other palms in the Bankers Hill area, were found to be obstructing that buffer zone.

“According to the FAA, during inclement weather conditions these trees may interfere with the designated flight path and potentially cause arriving planes to be diverted away from the airport,” city officials said.

Many residents have pushed back against that determination, though, because, technically, some of the trees aren’t too tall — yet. The FAA advises that airports add 10 feet to any tree they measure during their surveys because the surveys are done infrequently and trees don’t stop growing. The additional 10 feet assumes each of the trees will grow about 2½ feet per year, a figure that a city arborist said is reasonable. Residents who live near the trees disagree.

Currently, six of the eight palm trees aren’t penetrating the safety zone, though some are less than a foot away, according to figures provided by the airport.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which is responsible for airport operations, said in a statement that it is required to “proactively mitigate and prevent future effects on airport operations by ensuring vegetation does not block or impair instrument or visual operations at the airport.”

“The city of San Diego-owned palm trees located in the public right of way adjacent to the neighboring homes exceeds or will soon exceed acceptable elevations under federal standards, intruding into the airspace that surrounds the airport,” the statement read.

Tracy Van De Walker, who has lived in Ocean Beach for 25 years, was one of the organizers of the Oct. 21 protest. She said she and her husband were first notified that the palm trees would be removed in a letter postmarked Oct. 12, and they opened it Oct. 14.

The letter, sent by a San Diego International Airport planning manager, stated that the trees obstructed the protected airspace that surrounds the airport, but provided few additional details. Van De Walker said she and other community members had many questions about the decision to remove the trees but struggled to get additional information from the city or the airport.

“The whole process has seemed really dishonest to us,” Van De Walker said.

On Oct. 19, city crews arrived to start chopping the trees down. At least one palm was removed, but before another tree could be cut, Van De Walker placed herself at the base of the palm, preventing crews from felling it.

Van De Walker followed crews around and foiled several attempts to cut the trees before the crews gave up, she said. Crews tried again the next day, but Van De Walker again placed herself between them and one of the trees.

She said many community members care deeply for the giant palms. “These tree-lined streets are a part of Ocean Beach. They are iconic. They’re a part of our history. They are part of what make Ocean Beach Ocean Beach.”

This isn’t the first time Ocean Beach residents have fought to save palm trees. In 2005, a property owner requested that the city remove some palms near Santa Barbara Street and Niagara Avenue, just a block from the palms that are currently slated for removal. The resident complained that fallen fronds had damaged her roof.

The city sent crews to cut down the trees and managed to remove a few before other community members noticed the work and stood under the palms to prevent further chopping. Ultimately, the trees were saved after officials promised to trim them at least annually.

The city said in a statement Oct. 21 that it plans to work with nearby property owners to replace the tall palms with new leaf trees that are native to the region.

“In addition to providing shade and lowering temperatures, native trees support the city’s climate action goals of removing air pollution, reducing stormwater runoff and creating a more sustainable and resilient San Diego,” the statement read.

It was unclear when work to remove the palms would resume.


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