Removal of five palm trees leaves area residents with questions and anger

Residents gather in October to protest plans to cut down palm trees at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma.
Residents gather in October to protest plans to cut down palm trees at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma. Five trees were removed April 25.
(Kristian Carreon)

The city of San Diego’s razing of five palm trees this week at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street in Point Loma, near the Ocean Beach border, raised more questions than answers at the Ocean Beach Town Council meeting two days later.

The April 25 removal stemmed from a Federal Aviation Administration assessment last year that eight palm trees in the area had reached heights (roughly 70 feet) that could interfere with instruments used along San Diego International Airport flight paths during inclement weather, when planes fly at lower altitudes. But protests from residents, including legal action, delayed its implementation.

U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant in San Diego granted a temporary restraining order Nov. 1 preventing the city from cutting down the trees. The order was requested in a lawsuit filed Oct. 28 by local residents John and Tracy Van De Walker, who own a house in the 4400 block of Newport Avenue.

But on Nov. 9, Bashant declined to extend the temporary order, saying local residents did not have property rights over the trees because the city owns them and the land beneath them.

At the time, Kohta Zaiser, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s representative for District 2, which includes Point Loma and Ocean Beach, said the city was “lobbying the federal government to see if there’s any wiggle room, any type of leniency here. I do just want to be upfront that there very well could not be.”

At the Ocean Beach Town Council meeting April 27, the task of addressing the palm tree issue fell to Linus Smith, City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell’s new representative for Ocean Beach who had been on the job four weeks and was attending an OBTC meeting for the first time.

“Linus, I’m sure you were told by your staff and your chief of staff that we’re a tough audience,” OBTC board member Gary Gartner said.

Gartner chaired the meeting because Town Council President Corey Bruins, Vice President Cameron Reid and other board members were in Brazil to attend Reid’s wedding.

Smith was unable to answer questions about the FAA’s survey or how the trees constituted a problem for planes at San Diego International.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Smith said. “The very first I heard about the OB palms was when I saw in the paper that they were cutting those things down. That was my first notice of that situation.”

Every five to 10 years, San Diego airport officials conduct 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 FAA sets.

The survey in question concluded that the eight palms at Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street, and about a dozen others in the Bankers Hill area, “may interfere with the designated flight path and potentially cause arriving planes to be diverted away from the airport,” city officials said.

Local residents objected to plans to cut down these and other palm trees in Point Loma.
Local residents objected to plans to cut down these and other palm trees in Point Loma, pictured in October.
(Kristian Carreon)

Smith said repeated queries to city staff and the city forester yielded only that five trees were taken down under an “emergency order.”

“The city, because it has state and federal obligations to meet, had to comply with those orders,” Smith said.

Smith said the city will plant native trees to replace the removed palms.

“I do know that the city is going to be working with residents who were at the adjacent homes ... to find new trees to plant,” Smith said.

Longtime residents say the area’s palm trees are part of the fabric of the community, and many question the FAA’s determination that they could pose a problem for aviation.

The Van De Walkers’ attorney, Marc Steven Applbaum, has argued that based on his conversations with airline pilots, the aviation safety reason for removing the trees “is at best weak and inconclusive.”

“I know there are reasons for it, but the explanations given have been really lackluster.”

— Greg Winter, Ocean Beach Town Council board member

At the time of the survey, which took about two years, several of the trees technically weren’t too tall yet. Six of the eight were not penetrating the safety zone, though some were less than a foot away, according to the airport. 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 a city arborist said is reasonable.

OBTC board member Greg Winter, a certified pilot, asserted that residents deserve better explanations for the loss of the trees, even if it couldn’t be prevented.

“I know there are reasons for it, but the explanations given have been really lackluster,” Winter said. “I just think there is an answer here and it’s an easy answer. And I think the people would appreciate knowing more specifically what happened.”

Board member Tracy Dezenzo, who also is on the OB Planning Board, said that since the trees are in the city’s jurisdiction, the community has few options regarding their fate.

“I just want to remind people that these trees were in part of the walkway that the city owns,” she said. “Unfortunately, if we think that they are our trees, they’re really not. That part of the walkway is the city’s responsibility and the city owns it.”

Smith emphasized that Campbell “did not direct this to happen. Dr. Jen was not consulted or asked her opinion for should these trees be cut down.”

OBTC board member Tony Cohen was upset by the presence of police officers while the trees were being cut. “It’s just BS,” Cohen said. “We can’t get cops out for real issues, yet we can get them all out to prevent a protest to cut trees down.”

Mandy Havlik, a Peninsula Community Planning Board member and a candidate for the District 2 City Council seat this year, argued that the city failed the community with the swiftness with which the trees were cut down.

“This was another missed opportunity for our leadership to show community outreach with this,” she said. “I feel that it was incredibly inappropriate and a misuse of our public resources. The amount of [police] officers that were there ... and the lack of time the community had to be noticed and potentially appeal this.”

While saying he didn’t believe the anger was directed at any particular person, Gartner said: “You have to work with the community. When you come in and do something last minute like that so there’s less protest, it makes people even angrier.”

OB Pier news

Smith said the city will use $5 million of the $8.4 million appropriated by the state toward the Ocean Beach Pier last fall to launch the design phase and accompanying environmental studies for a new pier, with the remaining funds going to pier maintenance.

Gartner confirmed the development from a report sent by Zaiser. Reading from the report, Gartner said Gloria recently met with a newly formed engineering team leading the pier project to discuss next steps.

“Andrea [Schlageter, chairwoman] of the OB Planning Board recently reached out to this new department to request a presentation at their June meeting,” Gartner said, quoting the report.

“So we will be very interested in that,” Gartner said.

An evaluation report completed in 2019 by advisory firm Moffatt & Nichol and released in April 2021 said the pier, which first opened in July 1966, has “reached the end of its service life.” The inspection found cracked pilings and erosion, particularly at the junction where the downward-sloping portion of the pier from the land meets the slightly upward-sloping portion heading out above the water.

The report estimated that tearing down the pier and building a new one could result in service life of 75 years or more but would cost $40 million to $60 million.

Several Ocean Beach community leaders told the Point Loma-OB Monthly last year that they believe building a new pier is a better option than rehabilitating the existing one.

The pier was damaged by high surf in January 2021 and its west end has remained closed to the public for repairs. But Reid told the Monthly this month that “we’re anticipating the city to reopen that last portion of the pier ahead of the fishing season.”


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