Judge Strikes Down Effort to Halt City of Los Angeles' Tree Removals

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A judge struck down an effort by some activists to get a temporary restraining order against the city of Los Angeles and stop it from removing trees as part of its $1.3 billion sidewalk repair program on Friday.

The groups United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles and Eastside Nature Alliance had sought the TRO in Los Angeles Superior Court, arguing that the city's plans to cut down about 18 ficus trees on the 1200 block of N. Cherokee Avenue in Hollywood and six camphor trees in the 600 block of W. 48th St. in South L.A. was in need of a full environmental impact review as part of the California Environmental Quality Act, although the restraining order would have applied citywide.

Superior Court Judge Richard Fruin said he was ruling against the TRO for several reasons, including because the city already agreed to put on hold plans to cut down the trees.

Jill Stewart, executive director of the Coalition to Preserve LA, said the city is cutting down too many trees as part of its sidewalk repair program and that the loss of shade in the city will cause power outages and rising heat levels.

“The Board of Public Works is in the 1980s -- the 1980s. They're wearing the wrong clothes on this one, so we're trying to wake them up,” Stewart said.

The Coalition to Preserve LA is funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and is a frequent critic of the city's real estate development actions.

The TRO request is related to a lawsuit filed last year by United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles and Eastside Nature Alliance against the sidewalk repair program, although Stewart said her group was not directly part of the lawsuit and was not helping to pay any of the legal costs.

During a news conference outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse before the TRO hearing, Stewart and representatives of the plaintiffs declined to state who was paying for the lawsuit.

The city's 30-year sidewalk repair program is an effort to spend at least $31 million annually to repair or replace damaged sidewalks, and was enacted as the result of a 2015 settlement of a class action lawsuit brought by a group of disabled people who argued that the city was in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing over decades to properly maintain its sidewalks.

The ficus trees in the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue are located at the site where a slip-and-fall incident led to the city agreeing to a $3 million settlement in April with a woman, Holli S. Breakfield, who hit her head on a sidewalk there on New Year's Eve 2014 while being carried on the back of a man who “tripped on a pattern of defects,” according to her lawsuit.

Although Fruin declined to issue a TRO, the plaintiffs and the city are due in court for a hearing on Sept. 25 on the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction over the tree removals in the sidewalk repair program.

The Board of Public Works voted to remove the trees on Cherokee on July 18 and the 48th Street trees on July 25. Kevin James, the president of the Board of Public Works, told City News Service that the decision to cut the trees down has been put on hold until the City Council takes up the issue of the CEQA appeal from the plaintiffs.

James said that the city has a robust and comprehensive process on deciding if any tree in the city should be cut down as part of a sidewalk repair, with the Department on Disability, the Board of Public Works, the Bureau of Street Services Urban Forestry Division all having a part in the decision. James said the priority is always to preserve a tree when possible.

“We struggle and work really hard not only to maintain our tree canopy, and increase its health, but grow it throughout Los Angeles,” James said. “So when you create that conflict between the mandate to repair our sidewalks for safe passage pursuant to state and federal law, for our residents, sometimes you run into large, mature trees that are very difficult to issue a permit for their removal.”

James said the sidewalks on Cherokee are among the worst in the city, and the injuries that Breakfield suffered played a role in his vote to have the trees removed.

“The request for the tree removal came from the Department on Disability, so the request would have been granted whether or not that injury happened, because the damages on those sidewalks are significant,” James said. “But I personally voted on this and approved it in part because of the fact that we have already spent millions of dollars to pay for a lawsuit for a woman that injured herself significantly on these sidewalks. This would be very unfortunate if somebody else were to come along in the meantime and injure themselves on any sidewalk, but especially these sidewalks where we're tying to get them fixed.”

James also said he believed the city's process for deciding on removing trees is the most comprehensive in the nation, as each tree removal decision as part of the sidewalk repair program or of three trees or more gets a hearing at the Board of Public Works.

“I don't know of another city that holds public hearings like we do with the kind of written report that is given to the public, with approval from the city attorney, for the public to come and speak on, to oppose any such tree removal,” James said. “And we do that for every single one of these. The notice that we give people is very thorough. We will notify anybody in the area that seeks information on the trees, and we actually go out to the trees and we post them with signs to that people who are paying attention what the government's doing with the trees can come to the hearing.”

Stewart said the city lacked any clear plan or overall program to protect the city's trees and said other municipalities, including Seattle, had far more robust efforts to protect urban trees. She also said the city was not exploring all options to save the trees while repairing the sidewalks, that the leadership of the city and the Board of Public Work's process on trees was both flawed and dated, and that the city needs to invest more in a tree preservation program.

Stewart also said the TRO was requested even though the city has put the tree removal plans on hold because the plaintiffs don't trust the city leaders to keep their word.

“On Saturdays terrible things happen to the trees, horrible prunings, cutting down, and what we hear from the city was, `That wasn't us, that was the contractors, we don't work on Saturdays. And when the contractors make mistakes we don't have any control over that,' “ Stewart said. “So we will be there on Cherokee on Saturday to see if the city contractors show up. And several people -- not me, because I'm not going to climb up in a tree -- are going to go up in the trees to make sure the contractors don't quote-unquote accidentally start cutting down these trees. We're sorry we no longer trust the city but they've given us no reason to.”

A man named Jason, who asked to be identified only by his first name, has lived in a house on the 1200 block of Cherokee Avenue for two-and-a-half years. He told City News Service he filed a request with the city to have the sidewalks repaired on the block about 18 months ago because two elderly sisters who live there have a hard time using the sidewalks. A spokeswoman with the Department of Public Works confirmed that he was one of several people who had submitted a repair request.

“I understand the need for trees, and I think in general it's great to have trees, but these particular trees are incredibly destructive to the sidewalks and definitely impair the ability of these sisters who have lived on the street for a long time,” he said. “They make the sidewalks pretty much useless to them.”

Photo: Getty Images

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