Pepper tree stump in Kensington
In the past two months, the city has cut down four of Kensington's historic pepper trees that are as old as the subdivision itself. Since there are only about 32 left, neighbors wonder where will it end.
"After giving residents the feeling they’d won a reprieve for the trees, the city snuck back in when nobody was around and cut three more trees down," says Alex Finlayson of the latest incident.
The trees were planted throughout Kensington in 1910, their now-thick canopies linking past and present, prompting locals to seek heritage status to protect them; a request the city denied, citing the species' sidewalk-busting roots.
Like palms, peppers were planted everywhere. And now some cities see the willowy icons as a nuisance, especially those who want a berry and buckle-free sidewalk.
But unlike palms, the fast-growing, drought tolerant pepper, an evergreen from South America, yields ample shade and soaks up the greenhouse gases, desirable traits for street trees. Both trees and sidewalks are infrastructure. As neighbors see it, the city has chosen to save the sidewalks.
In historic Old Town, at least 20 mature pepper trees were removed in 2015 to make way for a street improvement project. Advocates for the trees said they were first told only a few would be cut down, then it turned out to be most of them.
Coronado is on an even bigger mission. The city began taking out all 900 of its pepper trees in 2017 due to their age and sidewalk debris. Each year, another 40. But unlike Kensington, residents who want to keep the tree in front of their house can file an appeal. If there are no significant safety issues, it won't be removed.
Plans to cut some of Kensington's peppers were made after an assessment in 2019. In January, 2020, the city removed one on Edgeware Road that neighbors insisted was sound. Residents took legal action, and a temporary restraining order against the city barred additional removals...until it expired.
The city has declined to comment due to the pending litigation.
Protests and delays followed, but the overall effort wasn't halted. Last month, another tree was chopped. Then, on March 17, the city was back as promised, saying decay had overtaken the three trees on Marlborough Street.
Neighbors say two of them were healthy, as indicated by Samuel Oludunfe, forester for the city of Chula Vista, whom they hired for an independent opinion.
Maggie McCann, who initiated the legal action, and others took photos of the stumps and broken bird eggs to help make their case. "That tree was solid," she says of one the city deemed a lost cause.
In a letter to the city council, McCann called it a major misunderstanding that hollowness of the trunk indicates fatal damage, and made a plea for "appropriate care and protection" of the city's mature trees.
The first pepper planted in San Diego, on the grounds of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, is 191 years old, nearly twice the age of Kensington's.
On the Western Tree Failure Database, which tracks all types of urban tree failures in the state to develop "failure profiles" of species to help protect standing urban trees, peppers for all their numbers are just a blip.
In March, 2006, a question was posted about pepper failures in southern California. At the time, there were only 13 reports out of 4,185 for all tree types. More than half were heavy lateral limbs.
As of March 10, 2021, there have been 6,361 total reports, and peppers aren't among the 15 tree types most often reported with broken trunks, limbs and roots.
The database doesn't reveal how often a species is likely to fail - it depends on the abundance of the species where the reports are submitted - but peppers are common statewide.
For now, anyway.
While the city says they will plant new trees to replace the ones removed, none will be peppers.
McCann recently learned from Anne Fege, chair of the Community Forest Advisory Board, that 4-5 years ago they worked on a list of approved street trees that was given to the city. On it was the California pepper tree. When the city published its list, however, the pepper tree had been taken off.
"We are working tirelessly to protect the remaining trees," she says of Kensington's dwindling stock. "They are a finite historical resource that, once gone, can’t be replaced."