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Judge Denies Injunction to Halt Removal of Downtown Ficus Trees

By Jorge Casuso

February 29 -- A Superior Court judge Thursday declined to grant a preliminary injunction requested by the Treesavers, paving the way for the City to remove 54 of the ficus trees that line two Downtown Santa Monica streets.

The ruling by Judge Ann I. Jones comes nine days after the City Council declined the group’s appeal to overturn a Landmarks Commission ruling that the trees along 2nd and 4th streets did not meet landmark requirements.

But the ruling will not likely end a battle that has blossomed into a controversy covered by the national press. Treesavers is contemplating an appeal and has threatened to have protesters chain themselves to the trees if the environmentally friendly City tries to remove them.

“It’s going to be up to the people to protect these beautiful ficus trees,” Santa Monica activist Jerry Rubin, who is leading the protest, said after the ruling.

“The City should be listening to the people regardless of what the court has ruled,” Rubin said. “It’s up to the City to do the right thing.”

City officials hailed Tuesday’s victory, saying it justified a public process that has included workshops and meetings that started in 1997.

“We’re very pleased with the ruling,” said Kate Vernez, a senior management analyst for the City Manager. “Our public process was correct.

“The City informed the public about what we were doing,” she said. “For a decade the public has been engaged. This project has a public benefit” that has been lost in the highly publicized controversy.

The lawsuit filed by the Treesavers questioned the process that resulted in a contract for the streetscape project authorized by the City Council last August. The plaintiffs argued that the City should have conducted an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) before it issued the contract for the work.

Treesavers contended that the City should not have defined the trees as small government facilities similar to a parking lot booth or curb cut, which can be exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.

Treesavers argued that CEQA has a special category that explicitly states that trees should not be exempted from the environmental process.

“The City staffer who said trees are facilities misled the City Council,” said Tom Nitti, the attorney for Treesavers.

The judge, however, did not rule on that issue. Instead, Jones ruled that Treesavers did not file the suit within 180 days of the council decision to define the trees as facilities, which she said took place in 2005 and not in August of last year, as Treesavers contended.

“The court said it’s too late to do anything about it,” Nitti said.

City officials said it will take some time before contractors begin removing 23 ficus trees the City’s urban forester deems to be “structurally unstable” and relocating another 31 of the 153 ficus trees along a three-block stretch of the two streets. The City also will remove 21 palms.

“We need to do logistical planning and reconnect with the contractor,” Vernez said.

Vernez noted that the City will replace the ficus with 139 new Ginkgo trees and that some of the ficus trees will be relocated to other parts of the two streets.

“You get two trees for every one that is removed, which really diversifies our urban forest,” she said.

Vernez said the controversy over the ficus trees has obscured the benefits the public will derive from the $8.2 million streetscape project, which calls for adding decorative up-lighting to the remaining ficus trees and repairing sidewalks or curbs damaged by the trees.

The plan also calls for enlarging tree wells and installing new pedestrian lighting, as well as enhancing the six mid-block crosswalks on 2nd and 4th streets.

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