Lawsuit seeks to block removal of palm trees

Residents protest at Santa Barbara Street and Santa Monica Avenue in Point Loma against plans to cut down nearby palm trees.
A group of residents gathers Oct. 21 at the corner of Santa Barbara Street and Santa Monica Avenue in Point Loma to protest the city of San Diego’s plan to cut down palm trees in the neighborhood.
(Kristian Carreon)

A local couple’s lawsuit against the city of San Diego and San Diego International Airport seeks an injunction to stop the planned removal of several palm trees along Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in the Point Loma-Ocean Beach area.

The suit, dated Oct. 28, was filed in federal court in San Diego on behalf of John and Tracy Van De Walker by their attorney, Marc Steven Applbaum of La Jolla-based Midway Law Firm. According to the lawsuit, the Van De Walkers own a house on Newport Avenue in Point Loma.

Longtime residents describe the towering trees as iconic and say they are part of the fabric of the community. About two dozen people protested Oct. 21 against removing eight trees.

Residents meet at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street to protest plans to cut down palm trees in Point Loma.
Residents meet at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street to protest plans to cut down palm trees in Point Loma.
(Kristian Carreon)

Tracy Van De Walker was one of the organizers of the protest, and on the two days before that, she placed herself at the base of some of the palms, preventing crews from cutting them down. At least one palm was removed before the crews gave up, she said.

“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,” Van De Walker said.

A city representative said the city would not comment about the lawsuit.

The city and aviation officials consider the trees a problem because of their height — about 70 feet.

Every five to 10 years, the 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 palms, and about a dozen other palms in the city’s 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,” the city said.

Before filing the lawsuit, Applbaum sent a cease-and-desist letter Oct. 21 to San Diego city forester Brian Widener; Mayor Todd Gloria; Ralph Redman, manager of airport planning for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority; and the FAA.

According to a statement from Applbaum’s office, the letter called on the recipients “to refrain from cutting down, mutilating [and] extracting” the palm trees along Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street. The complaint says removing the “100-year-old palm trees” would damage “the value and use of the plaintiffs’ property.”

A sign protesting cutting down eight palm trees stands in front of a home at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street.
A sign protesting plans to cut down eight palm trees stands in front of a home at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma.
(Kristian Carreon)

With no movement from government officials to address the Van De Walkers’ concerns and those of other property owners, the statement said, Applbaum filed the lawsuit alleging “federal and state civil-rights violations [and] inverse condemnation in connection with the regulatory taking of the palm trees in violation of the California Environmental [Quality] Act.”

The suit names as defendants Widener, the FAA, the Airport Authority and the California Coastal Commission.

The statement added that based on Applbaum’s conversations with airline pilots, the aviation safety reason for removing the trees “is at best weak and inconclusive.”

Many residents have pushed back against that reason as well 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 that each of the trees will grow about 2½ feet per year, a figure that a city arborist said is reasonable.

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 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.

The lawsuit, however, contends the tree removal “would use public monies with no viable public purpose, constituting a gift of public funds in violation of the California Constitution.”

The city said in a statement Oct. 21 that it planned to work with nearby property owners to replace the 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.


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