On August 15, Bay Park resident Laura Schumacher saw her husband's favorite ficus tree being cut down (above Mission Bay Park on Clairemont Drive between Denver and Galveston). The workers told her they were there "at the request of the nearby church Clairemont Emmanuel Baptist Church."
A church spokesperson told Schumacher "the tree was being cut down at the request of the city." A church administrator told her husband: "the church board approved removing the tree."
A call to councilmember Lorie Zapf's office got the work stopped, but not until the tree was practically cut in half.
The tree is a favorite for many in the area. It's impossible to miss when heading down Clairemont Drive toward the I-5 or Mission Bay Park.
Schumacher estimates the tree is at least 50 years old. She talked to someone on the urban forestry committee who told her the city gives special protection to trees more than 50 years old (heritage trees). Schumacher saw someone measuring the tree's trunk the afternoon of the incident, she thinks perhaps to determine its age.
A city spokesman said the ficus tree does not have heritage or landmark tree protection. Anyone can nominate a tree for protection on public or private property. Nominees meeting all the criteria are evaluated by the forest advisory board.
Schumacher said the same forestry committee member told her that "even if a private party owns a tree on the public right-of-way, they still need a permit to cut it down."
Owners of fronting property can apply for the city's no-fee-permit to trim or remove a street tree if the tree isn't part of a uniform tree planting or a significant neighborhood asset.
Other residents like Steve Welles said citizens of San Diego need to know the truth about what happened and those responsible need to be penalized as a warning to others.
David Hingeley from Crown Point Clippers got back to me via e-mail. He said the church hired his company to cut down the tree for "safety reasons regarding concern for the kids on the playground under the tree."
The sidewalk between the tree and the fenced playground is messed up. The city sidewalk directly opposite appears unscathed.
Hingeley said the church was "adamant it was their tree and assured me multiple times." He said the church told him the city told the church years ago, "it was their tree and they would not deal with it."
When asked about the health of the tree, Hingeley said, "Ficus trees grow like weeds but [are] subject to failure due to their size."
I didn't find much local reporting on ficus tree mayhem. Though in 2016 Fort Rosecrans' oldest ficus tree (80-to-90-years old) fell among the headstones. The 60-to-70-foot tree died of natural causes.
Lois from the church's office told me no one was available to talk to me. Another staff member said she believed the city had asked for something to be done. "I heard that its limbs were getting too heavy to be that close to the sidewalk and road."
I finally got in touch with Kenny Dodd, senior pastor at Clairemont Emmanuel.
When asked what the impetus was for the church board voting to cut down the tree, Dodd said, "We talked to someone at the city and they told us 'the tree is on your property, you can do with it whatever you want'."
Dodd wasn't sure who (or when) the church's administrative pastor Eloy Garcia talked to at the city about the tree.
"We checked with an arborist who told us it was so old and the branches so heavy, it was a danger and a liability to us — for anyone on our property and anyone on Clairemont Drive. It is because of that we decided to remove it. Our plan was to plant new trees."
On the city's Get-It-Done app, I found only one tree hazard complaint on Clairemont Drive. In March 2017, someone complained about "terribly neglected and unsightly palm trees" along the I-5 (nearby the ficus tree).
Dodd said he didn't know if the church had been maintaining the tree over the decades.
The tree has been trimmed over the years including in 2014 when leaves were completely removed. Since 2015, it's gotten fuller but doesn't appear to be obstructing pedestrians or drivers.
Dodd said, "The tree has been there as long as I have — 24 years — and I'm sure before that."
Documentation shows the church purchased the property from the city for $31,000 in 1981. Tax records estimate current market value at about $1 million.
A city spokesperson said, "We haven’t found anyone at the city who was aware of or request[ed] the trimming." He said the contractor and church property manager halted the work when city staff informed them a permit was needed.
Will the tree survive? "The tree is sound and stable and we are working with the property manager to guide them through the permitting process and, then, guide them on how to correctively prune and reshape the tree."
Dodd said he was surprised at the city's assessment that the tree will survive.
I asked the city if there was any possible way the tree could belong to the church. "No matter what is said by any party outside of the city, the tree in question is in the city right-of-way and is the city’s responsibility." He said trees in the "right-of-way are not typically, individually relinquished."
When I asked for a recent city tree inventory, I was told there wasn't one to share. I was unable to locate a city tree maintenance schedule where the ficus tree might be listed.
City staff reported at an April 2018 forest advisory board meeting that the tree inventory was about 95-percent done.
A 2016 urban forest management plan showed a 2002/2003 tree inventory with 19 ficus trees in District 2. The only problem is that in 2003, Bay Park was in District 6 and it showed zero ficus trees.
From afar, some trees listed in District 6 might be mistaken for a ficus (ash, brisbane box, melaleuca, and siberian elm), but close-up the leaf and bark structure are different.
Colorful trees like chinese flame and jacaranda could never be mistaken for a ficus nor could pine, eucalyptus, carrotwood, or juniper trees. While fig trees like the Balboa Park Moreton Bay Fig are in the ficus family, they also have a different leaf structure.
In 2013/2014, the city's sidewalk project on Clairemont Drive (between Denver and Edison) skipped over the area in front of the ficus tree. It appears then, as now, not to be damaged.
The city's 2016 report stated property owners are responsible for sidewalk damage when city trees are not involved. This could mean the church would be responsible for any street-side sidewalk damage if the tree is theirs as they say.
It's worth noting the city is rarely hesitant to remove trees if they see them as a public danger.