Ficus trees on W. I Street in Encinitas
An attempt to pass a tree ordinance in Encinitas drew a slew of people to a meeting Wednesday night (March 8).
Besides being generally interested in protecting publicly owned trees, people wanted to talk about the four ficus trees the city planned to cut down last year. The city aborted the plan amid public protest and is now trying to control the trees' growth so their roots stop damaging streets, sidewalks, and sewer connections.
The proposed ordinance is more broad and general, allowing the city to declare trees “heritage trees,” which triggers greater protections for them. The ordinance only applies to city-owned trees, not to private property.
The city already has a tree ordinance (approved in 2011) and was recognized as a “Tree City” in 2012. But the “safety net” for trees has failed several times since then, and the city is exploring hiring a contract arborist as its tree expert.
Mayor Catherine Blakespear talked about an incident with Cottonwood Creek trees several years ago, when city staff cut down cottonwoods that volunteers had been watering and nurturing.
City councilman Tony Kranz recalled an incident where a contractor replacing sewer lines at 3rd and F streets erected a fence around an old-growth tree to protect it from earth-moving equipment at the beginning of the project. By the end of the project, that equipment was being parked inside the fence and the tree was destroyed.
The proposed ordinance would strengthen protections so the city and others will have to get permission from the city arborist to cut trees down. Under the ordinance, tree protection zones would apply to any ground below the edge of the canopy. Trees on private land would not be included in the requirements, and it would create a point of contact for anyone who planned to do anything to the city’s trees.
Bruce Ritchings said he though the ordinance went too far.
"I'm concerned that too much power would be put in the hands of one person, the arborist," Ritchings said. "Worst-case scenario, he could take payoffs from developers who want to cut them all down."
The council delayed voting on the ordinance until some changes are written into it.
People are still fighting over the four ficus trees that are being trimmed to see if the trees will respond to a smaller canopy by shooting out less aggressive roots. There are about 55 ficus trees in downtown Encinitas.
"Like pit bulls, sometimes ficuses get a bad rap and sometimes they deserve it," said Robert Barrelman. "They are filthy trees. They are a nuisance."
Other speakers defended the ficus, saying that proper trimming and management had been lacking, and the damage to streets and sidewalks happened because the trees grow root systems to support however large the canopies have become.
"These trees are wonderfully amenable," Ritchings said. "You can see how well behaved they are if you do the proper pruning."
A Mr. Stowes wasn't impressed.
"I have a $43,000 bill that I have to pay because I have to redo stucco and footings on one side of the building," Stowes said. "We have to put in a new sewer line because a ficus invaded all of it…. I’m not against trees at all, I support trees.”