Could the timing have been any worse? As Santa Cruz voters go to the polls Tuesday to vote up or down on the controversial multiuse library/housing/parking structure downtown on Lot 4, all of sudden the trees on the parcel were tagged for removal. Was it all a plot, a clumsy move — or just part of a long-planned process that protestors find objectionable?
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Much like children and puppy dogs, nobody wants to be caught in the anti- camp when it comes to trees. And yet, at least in the eyes of some in Santa Cruz, that’s where the city’s parks and recreation department finds itself — on the eve of a crucial election.
On Oct. 18, several trees on Lot 4 on Cedar Street in downtown Santa Cruz, where the farmers market is held each Wednesday, were tagged with an official “notice of action,” a public notice that a developer had applied for a permit for “alteration/removal/relocation” of the trees. Many in Santa Cruz saw the notice as little more than a death warrant, the hood that cloaks the condemned.
Since then, the tagged trees have served as a flashpoint in the contentious debate surrounding Measure O, the ballot measure that seeks to halt the development of Lot 4 into a new public library, affordable housing complex and parking garage, known as the library/mixed-use project. Whether or not that project is good or bad public policy or good or bad city planning, partisans on either side of the debate can agree that tagging trees for removal just before an election to decide the fate of those trees is certainly bad optics.
Rumors and assumptions about the tagging of the trees are thicker than fallen leaves these days. Those not in the mood to be charitable to the city will tell you that it’s either (A) a gesture of smug, arrogance from a city staff dangerously overconfident the election will not derail the project, or (B) a signal of a clueless bureaucratic class that has no conception of how such an action would inflame an already fiery electorate.
According to Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker, neither of those interpretations is true. Huffaker said the timeline of the project, already several years in the planning stages, dictated that the city post the notices when it did, and that the timing of the upcoming election was nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. “The city, in response to the developer filing their planning permit, as well as the tree-removal application, required the decision to move forward with that notice,” Huffaker said. “It has everything to do with the project timeline.”
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The developer in this case, as listed on the notice, is For the Future Housing of San Jose, which is partnering with Eden Housing on the multiuse project.
The notice has generated considerable pushback. Among those spearheading the protest is Pauline Seales, a political organizer at Santa Cruz Climate Action Network, part of the coalition of grassroots groups supporting Measure O and opposing the library/mixed-use project. Seales and others have staged theatrical protests at the site of the trees.
“We weren’t expecting that they would post [the notices on the trees] before the election, before Measure O had a chance,” said Seales, who said she was “furious” when she first saw the notices. “Because if Measure O passes, that would make it invalid. But if they had already cut down the trees … well, I don’t even want to think about that.”
Huffaker said the passage of Measure O would indeed “prohibit the removal of the trees.” The purpose of the notice is to inform the public and give residents a chance to comment on, or protest, the removal or the relocation of the trees. Appeals to the decision to remove the trees would come to the parks and recreation department in December and to the city council probably in January, said Huffaker. Seales said her group has applied for an appeal to the decision.
The dozen trees in question on Lot 4 include five Southern magnolias, two sweetgums, four Chinese pistaches and one ginkgo biloba. Nine of the 12 are classified as “heritage trees,” a classification of protected trees that requires notice before it is removed.
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An independent arborist report, commissioned by the city and issued in January, said only two of the trees are likely candidates to be relocated to another site. The report went on to state that, “all 12 trees exhibit myriad detrimental conditions” but they could all still be retained on the site, given improvements. The report said that all the trees had displayed some signs of poor health in what the report called the “hardscape,” the asphalt of the parking lot.
If Measure O fails, however, all the trees will likely be removed, though that might take months.
Judging Lot 4 only on how conditions exist now, the report, from arborist Torrey Young, said, “it is ill advised to retain these trees on site unless extensive design accommodation can be undertaken to both enhance their growing conditions and reduce risk.”
Measure O proponents say that is exactly what they hope to do, convert Lot 4 into a kind of public square in which all the trees will survive and thrive. The report gives validity to both sides — those who want to preserve the trees as part of Measure O, and those who support the library/mixed-use project who believe the trees are too compromised to preserve. The trees, said the report, “could be retained on site if extensive preservation and site improvements are implemented, but their existing condition renders such efforts questionable.”
Earlier this week, Seales said she had gathered around 850 signatures to a petition to stop the removal of the trees. She said the trees can and will be part of a plan for a new public square on Lot 4. “Taking up the asphalt around the trees and improving their root areas would be a great idea,” she said.
As for the city, Huffaker is certainly conscious of the bad optics. “We understand how it looks on its face,” he said. “Measure O next week may change the course on the city’s work on the project. But in the meantime, the council has directed the city staff to move forward with it. And the affordable-housing developer has a timeline in place, and funding at risk here based on that timing. [We have to] proceed with the planning permit process, despite the timing around the election.”