From the Mayor: Who will speak for the trees?

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The next best time is now.”

– Chinese proverb

Trees cool the climate, look beautiful, grow food, shelter birds and animals, shade us from beating heat, and buffer our eyes and ears.

A healthy tree canopy is an essential public benefit – plain and simple. The City of Encinitas spends a lot money, time and energy on maintaining and expanding our urban forest.

That’s why I’ve been deeply unhappy watching the wholesale removal of historic trees in the Caltrans right-of-way as the I-5 freeway is widened through Encinitas with new carpool lanes in each direction.

I felt I had to do something about it.

In a series of meetings recently, I asked Caltrans to do more to protect our old growth trees, both in our city and throughout the freeway corridor as the widening project moves north.

And they listened. Caltrans’ tree removal through Encinitas has now been halted until an agreed-upon action plan can be developed. They will now walk the corridor with our city arborist to determine if the removal of trees in buffer areas can be avoided.

For example, if a tree is at the top of a slope, a small inexpensive block wall may be all that’s needed to retain the soil and preserve the tree. A two-foot trench in key places could determine if the tree roots would even be impacted by nearby freeway construction.

Caltrans has the authority to remove trees and vegetation in its right-of-way, subject to applicable permits. But being a good partner with other agencies like the City of Encinitas, and serving the public in a responsible and responsive way, means keeping residents’ preservation concerns top-of-mind during major projects like this.

There were between 36 and 47 trees, many of them historic eucalyptus and Torrey Pines, scheduled to be removed adjacent to Encinitas Community Park between Birmingham Drive and Santa Fe Drive. Many trees have already been removed in this section. A large number were ripped out without any advance notice or communication with the city or nearby residents, subjecting park visitors and residents to a substantially degraded environment.

Caltrans plans to plant 74 Torrey Pines in the area where up to 47 trees were planned for removal adjacent to the park. The city’s parks department has now planted a row of trees on our side of the right-of-way, which is under our exclusive control, so that that situation won’t happen again.

Torrey Pines are an endangered tree in the wild, growing only two places in California -- the narrow strip of coastal northern San Diego County where we live, and in two groves on Santa Rosa island off the coast of Santa Barbara.

It’s heartbreaking to see so many of these trees on the wrong side of a yellow construction tape line.

I was similarly disappointed when the Cardiff School District felled 70-year-old Torrey Pines at the Cardiff School to make way for what appears to be a flat construction site.

I have no illusions about the ultimate life cycle of trees. Like all living things, they will inevitably die. But every agency and every person involved needs to internalize and create a culture of protecting trees. It’s always easier to plan construction projects by starting with an empty flat surface than to work around something growing and protected. If we truly care about trees, we must make accommodations.

Unlike the Torrey Pines, the willowy eucalyptus aren’t being replanted when they’re removed, because they aren’t native. I love the eucalyptus, remnants of old California that were imported from Australia for use in building the railroad.

I know the difficulty of deciding on tree removal. In our historic Highway 101 corridor through Leucadia, we have some majestic old eucalyptus, diseased and rotted internally, that need to be removed. This is always a wrenching decision, especially when the tree looks healthy from the outside.

To make sure that we are making the right decisions, we have several arborists on staff in our parks department, and our public works department has an arborist dedicated exclusively to evaluating street trees. We also have a tree committee made up of citizens, called the “Urban Forest Advisory Committee” that evaluates major tree decisions.

The city has planted 355 trees this year and will plant another 600 in the next two months. In an upcoming city council meeting we’ll be hearing an update on the State of the Urban Forest.

If you’d like to raise any concerns to Caltrans about trees or other issues related to the freeway construction project, you can contact Build NCC at BuildNCC@KeepSanDiego, or call 844-622-0050.

There are many things that are going right in this massive construction program, such as the Cardiff Rail Trail, and I’m grateful for the hard work of the BuildNCC staff. I’m hopeful that the management and preservation of existing trees will join that category very soon.