The Pine Cone's second story of the week

Council rejects mayor's tree appeal


Published: September 12, 2008

CARMEL MAYOR Sue McCloud lost an appeal to the city council Tuesday night that would have forced her neighbor, Susan Page, to keep a black Acacia tree growing next to her home. McCloud had hoped the council would vote in her favor and overturn a unanimous forest and beach commission decision allowing Page to cut down the large tree and replace it with another species.

McCloud believes the decades-old tree is healthy and wants it to continue screening the two houses from each other, while Page believes it’s dangerous and a liability, and wants it removed.

In a March 20 analysis, Page’s arborist, Frank Ono, concluded that although the 30-inch-diameter Acacia “is considered in moderate health with no significant signs of insects or diseases,” it is in “low vigor” and poor structural condition due to past pruning practices that left its branches weak. He said it should be cut down and replaced.

City forester Mike Branson agreed, and suggested planting a fruitless olive tree, which would grow quickly and offer good screening without requiring as much heavy pruning and topping. In April, the forest and beach commission voted 4-0 to follow his recommendations and approve Page’s tree-removal application.

But McCloud filed an appeal, arguing the tree is fairly healthy and poses no immediate threat, and saying the commission did not consider pruning as a cheaper, less time-consuming, viable alternative.

At the Sept. 9 council meeting, the mayor stepped down and left the room while the council discussed her appeal, which Branson recommended denying.

“Continued heavy pruning to limit growth and weight of the tree canopy can limit the stress on the limbs, but the risk of significant limb failure always remains, due to past pruning practices,” he said.

Black Acacias typically live 50 or 60 years, and this tree was two stories tall in 1977, according to McCloud.

Attorney Stephen Beals, representing Page, said it is “within striking distance of both life and property,” and argued the city should not force Page to “maintain a dangerous condition on her property” that could make her liable if the tree or its branches fell on someone or something.

“We ask that the city not place the aesthetic concerns of one citizen over the health and safety concerns of another,” he said.

Clay Berling, McCloud’s brother-in-law, spoke on her behalf and said arborist Rob Thompson concluded the tree is healthy and vigorous, and should therefore be retained and pruned. “This landmark status black Acacia does not pose a hazard to public safety,” he read from a three-page statement prepared by McCloud. “It is unique in terms of its size and age, and the values and benefits it provides, such as shading, bird habitat, privacy, a greenbelt vegetation screen, and a tranquil atmosphere and setting that a part-time resident may not fully appreciate.”

But should the council deny the appeal, McCloud requested it require Page to grind the stump out so new trees can be planted in the same location and replace it with fast growing bamboo or two olive trees.

Councilman Gerard Rose said he was struck by the contrasting opinions regarding the threat posed by the tree.

“At the site yesterday, I was surprised how beautiful the tree was. Black Acacias don’t usually strike me as being worth saving,” he added. “It’s a tough call, and I didn’t make up my mind until just now, but at the end of the day, I believe this tree should be retained.”

“I certainly don’t like taking out trees,” commented councilwoman Karen Sharp. “However, if two trees were planted in place of one, I would feel a lot more comfortable.”

Beals said Page agreed to McCloud’s conditions, including planting two trees instead of one.

“We have seen trees that pose imminent danger,” said Rose, who made a motion to grant McCloud’s request and overturn the forest and beach commission’s decision. “This one does not.”

But his motion died for lack of a second, and council member Ken Talmage proposed denying the appeal. He said McCloud and Page should work with Branson to select the best type of trees to replace the Acacia. Voting 3-1, the council agreed.