19 April 2014

Sleepy Hollow Tree Removal Not Oak-ay?

UPDATE, 3 May 2014:  This weekend's Champion has an article by Marianne Napoles about the removal of the two trees on the property, with attention given to the fact that the felling of the second tree (close to the white shed at the left of the photo below) was not previously known to be ordered as part of the house project.

Chino Hills Community Development Director Joann Lombardo stated that the tree was ordered removed by the city engineer because it was in the public right-of-way and need to be cut down for widening of Rosemary Lane as part of the home's construction.

As noted previously, there were design phase reviews by city staff sent to the Planning Commission for review and vote.  Staff did not alert commission members to the fact that, while the applicant's arborist claimed the main oak (at the right in the photo) was diseased, the city's arborist stated otherwise, reporting it to be quite healthy.

In the case of the second oak, however, Ms. Lombardo stated that the city engineer's findings were not part of the design phase review and that she was not aware of it until later.

This is somewhat disconcerting:  there is a relatively simple house-building proposal that involves key elements that are uniform and expected.  The city engineer should be able to communicate with the community development department so that misunderstandings or a lack of information do not take place.

Again, it's not just that two mature, native oak trees were taken down--it is understandable that some mitigation has to be done to allow a project to move forward, a project that is welcomed when it adds to the neighborhood.

The problem is the information disconnect that clearly went on between three entities:  the city engineer, the community development department and the planning commission.  That simply should not have happened.

UPDATE, 30 April 2014:  The oak tree in question below and another one next to Rosemary Lane at the southwest corner of the property were cut down today.

A proposed home site on Rosemary Lane in Sleepy Hollow without two oak trees that were cut down today. Compare this photo to the one below showing the larger of the two oaks.  Click on the image to see it enlarged in a new window.

The large dual stumps of the 80+ year old oak tree chopped down today.
Another multi-stump oak cut down today--this one stood near the shed seen at the left in the top photo.
Today's Champion has an interesting article by Marianne Napoles on a proposal to build a custom home in Sleepy Hollow and the matter of removing an 80-year old oak tree as part of the project.

The property owners, a couple from Orange County, submitted an application with the City of Chino Hills for a two-story residence with Egyptian design elements, and the matter was reviewed by staff and submitted to the city's Planning Commission with a recommendation for approval.

During the commission's hearing, there were expressed concerns from its members about design elements being too prominent and out-of-character with the neighborhood (though, given how diverse the architecture is in Sleepy Hollow--this being, actually, a positive aspect), and whether infrastructure, principally the septic system, could be accommodated properly on the lot.

Local residents also pointed out potential problems with access to the property because of the narrowness and curvature of Rosemary Lane, along which the lot sits, as well as concern for a mature oak tree that sits next to the road at the edge of the parcel.

This latter point is at issue because the city recently enacted an oak preservation ordinance, though, as the Champion noted in its article, the ordinance was passed in Spring 2012, but not actually implemented until just last Fall because of delays in providing the operational structure and policy for the legislation. 

This was just a month after the proposed home's design was approved by the Planning Commission.

The fact that the delay was so lengthy became at issue when it was revealed in the news article that the above-mentioned tree was reported by staff to the Planning Commission at that body's 4 March hearing to be diseased and, therefore, deemed necessary for removal, with new oaks planted elsewhere on the property for compensation of the loss of the older tree.

What staff did not reveal to the commission, however, is that the determination that the mature tree was diseased came solely from the arborist hired by the property owners. 

In fact, the city's arborist had an entirely different conclusion when he examined the oak this past January--he stated the condition and health of the tree was, actually, average. 

In other words, there was no reason to remove the oak because of concerns about its physical condition--a point that was made by the applicants, who wanted to remove it, at least in part, because of an assumed risk and danger from collapse during period of strong winds and heavy rains. 

It should be noted, too, that oak trees can die and fall because of landscape irrigation, if existing trees used to natural water supply are inundated with artificial supply from sprinklers.  This can be found out the hard way when oak trees die and fall because of sprinklers installed by a previous owner and/or builder.

Having learned of this, Planning Commission member Karen Bristow told the paper that she was "frosted" (that is, angry) because she and her colleagues were not told that the city's arborist came to a different conclusion than the applicant's arborist.  Clearly, there may have been a different decision from the commission about that particular point if full disclosure had been made. 

Bristow also made the comment that the city did not appear to reject any projects--a suggestion, apparently, that staff analysis and reporting may reflect an "institutional culture" that works for developers and against anyone who opposes projects, even on reasonable grounds.

This oak tree, dating at least back to the Great Depression years of the mid-1930s, is threatened with demolition as part of a proposed house project on Rosemary Lane in Sleepy Hollow.  At a 4 March meeting, Chino Hills Community Development Department staff only gave the city's Planning Commission the finding of the applicant's arborist that the tree was diseased and needed to be destroyed.  This, despite the fact that the city's own arborist, back in January, found the tree to be in average health--information not presented to the commission as it further deliberated and decided upon this project.
This, by the way, is definitely an issue for any government entity, be it city or county, that is in an environment where so-called "pro-growth" and intensive private property rights attitudes and the powerful lobbying efforts (or generous campaign donations) of the Building Industry Association and other proponents are most manifest.  Certainly, one house in Carbon Canyon is not a problem, compared to, say, 162 houses at Madrona in Brea or a pending application for 107 houses just east of Sleepy Hollow.

Neither is this issue fundamentally just about a single, 80-year old oak tree--although the oak preservation ordinance passed by the city was a reasonable attempt to protect mature trees that are a major symbolic statement about the city and, certainly, of Carbon Canyon, which is studded with them.

Rather, this matter is essentially about due diligence, transparency, and responsibility.  City staff erred significantly in falling far short of full disclosure.  Community Development Department personnel knew that the city's arborist had a contrary view and, more importantly, he is the city's arborist.  His professional findings should, therefore, be the findings of his employer, the City of Chino Hills and its Community Development Department.

For staff to accept the results of a report of an arborist paid for the owners in contradiction to the city's own arborist and then to fail to provide full disclosure about this to the Planning Commission, is where the problem here lies. 

It simply raises a matter of trust.  How can the Planning Commission feel that it can have faith in city staff to provide the necessary and required information about a project in light of a revelation such as this?

At a city council meeting in Temple City this Tuesday, this very issue came up.  On discussion about public transit services, a council member expressed concern that staff had not provided information that would help the council make an informed decision about which vendor to hire.

Community Development director Joann Lombardo was quoted as offering two different rationales for the failure to properly inform the commission of the issues on the tree's removal.  On one hand, she stated that the project's integrity was compromised by the tree's existence because of the physical orientation of the lot, including where the septic system's leach lines are plotted to go.  Then she said that the delay in creating the administrative policy for the oak ordinance left staff without the proper structure for dealing with the tree and mitigation upon removal.

The first point is not necessarily an invalid one, but it still doesn't address the problem of not properly informing the commission of the fundamental issue. 

The second point might be valid for this particular project, but reveals another problem--why did it take staff so long to implement the policy to protect oaks, especially when the improving economy and housing market was leading to a return in project submissions within the city?

Finally, even if the commission approved the home's design in October, the process wasn't done.  Hence, the 4 March hearing before the commission.  If staff had done their due diligence and properly informed the commission of the city arborist's findings regarding this oak tree, there could very well have been a different result that evening.

Given the failure of Ms. Lombardo and her staff to properly provide all relevant information to the commission at its hearing in early March, is it possible for this project to be halted and the commission given the opportunity to go back and review, with all full disclosure as should have been done in the first place, and then make a better, more informed decision?

This is not about being against having a home built on what has been an empty and often unsightly lot.  A beautiful, new residence that conforms to the topography of the lot and which does not compromise Rosemary Lane's route and which preserves whatever reasonably can be of any of its landscape, including a mature oak that has been there since at least the mid-1930s is more than welcome.

Again, this is not about the tree, it is about the process and the failure of due diligence and full disclosure.

The project cannot be properly evaluated, deliberated upon, and decided upon without these.

Let the Planning Commission reopen this case, with all available information properly presented, and then make a well-informed and reasonable decision.  That's all anyone can ask.

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