Marlborough Drive – one of three trees to be removed
A battle to save 35 stately old pepper trees, the last to frame the streets of Kensington, is far from over. It's already too late for Karla, a centurion located at 4190 Monroe Street - until she was toppled last Friday.
Karla had an overhanging branch badly in need of trimming. But by noon on Jan. 22, a city crew had carted away every last one of her shade-bearing limbs, leaving only a stump.
Residents were told by crew workers that the city would be back Monday for three more pepper trees across from the Kensington Community Church on Marlborough Drive.
The latest skirmish erupted in September when the city announced that the four trees would be removed due to decay and other structural defects.
Karla at 4190 Monroe, before branch removed
Long before that, others had taken note of the heavy branch hanging over the sidewalk. On October 17, 2019, a public request came in through "Get it Done" to review the Monroe Avenue pepper trees for safety between Edgeware Road and 42°d Street," according to city forester Brian Widener.
That's when he evaluated the big tree at 4190 Monroe, deciding it had reached its end "as it is no longer a viable tree and suffers from significant decay and structural defects throughout all the stems. One of the 21-inch diameter limbs has at least 13 inches hollow."
Pepper tree longevity is anywhere from 50 to 150 years, Widener wrote. "This tree can no longer be saved."
Other public requests and an assessment extended to the trees on Marlborough, which he said "pose a significant risk to our community in the right of way."
Kensington resident Maggie McCann disputes the city forester's health report. She now has two active lawsuits against the city, one for skipping the environmental review process for undergrounding in her area, despite having done it elsewhere in Kensington, and another for the stealth removal of two other trees.
"In January 2019, without warning, the city removed a pepper tree one block away from me, and then I got a knock on the door a few days later from a contractor, telling me they were going to take out my tree, too."
Karla, before all limbs removed
McCann wasn't happy. She had spent a year fighting to protect Kensington's 110-year-old pepper trees with an effort to get them listed as heritage trees, a status they are eligible for under city policy since they are more than 50 years old.
She and other advocates submitted a Conserve-a-Tree nomination in 2018 for all the remaining historic pepper trees. The nomination goes to the city arborist, currently Widener, who forwards it to the Community Forest Advisory Board to make the decision.
When the conservationists heard back months later, they were told the nomination would not be forwarded and that pepper trees are not normally given protected status, "due to the growth form and characteristics of this tree including roots that can cause significant damage to city infrastructure including sidewalks and curbs."
There was no reference to any such city policy.
Some of Kensington's 35 stately old pepper trees
Save Our Heritage Organization
Her attorney filed a temporary restraining order to try and save her tree on Edgeware Road. She then hired Chula Vista city forester Sam Oludunfe to assess its health.
"He also looked at the Monroe tree, removed on Friday, and the three trees on Marlborough, also tagged for removal."
The consulting arborist performed a basic tree assessment, finding the one at 4748 Marlborough Drive afflicted with fungal rot and in need of removal. But the Monroe tree named Karla and the other two on Marlborough "are stable, had moderate to full canopies with strongly attached branches and good foliage."
Oludunfe disagreed with Widener's analysis and conclusions but said Karla's branch "overhangs the adjacent sidewalk and should be removed as soon as possible."
He recommended an advanced tree assessment to determine the structural soundness of the outwardly healthy trees.
It wasn't the only independent assessment of the tree on Monroe. Dan Lembo, who lives at 4190 Monroe Avenue, hired a certified arborist to evaluate his tree. The arborist concluded that Karla was healthy and posed no danger.
McCann says she checked the city’s Get It Done app and found a complaint had been made that someone couldn’t park next to the tree. "Dan removed all of the new overgrowth from the base of the tree," eliminating the problem.
McCann says they still don't know why the trees are being cut down.
"When they removed the first tree a year ago, they said it was because they couldn't replace the sidewalk without removing the tree. However, six months prior to cutting the tree down, they replaced the sidewalk, pruned the tree roots, and left cutouts in the sidewalk to accommodate the tree."
In court documents, Widener said the trees are not being removed as part of the city's utility undergrounding program, but as part of the sidewalk replacement project.
"In accordance with public safety and requests made by the public, some pepper trees in the Kensington community have been and are scheduled to be removed."
The city says they will replace removed street trees - but not with pepper trees.
As of January 26, the trees on Marlborough Drive are standing, McCann says. "I drove by other peppers along the southern stretch of Marlborough today, and none were missing."
She attributes the silence to fallen palms and eucalyptus trees that kept crews busy on other Kensington streets after Monday's winds..