The Montecito community turned out in force Wednesday morning to voice its anger over the removal of 12 eucalyptus trees from East Valley Road, and the plan to cut down more. The discussion took place during a special meeting of the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC), where residents and officials brainstormed ways to halt further eradication of the trademark trees.
The California Department of Transportation, also known as Caltrans, has been issuing cutting permits to private landowners for the removal of their eucalyptus trees near Birnam Wood Golf Course. “We really didn’t realize what was happening until the chainsaws started running,” said Commissioner Daniel Eidelson. Once the news spread, residents protested loudly, gathering approximately 1,000 signatures petitioning an end to the chopping. According to one community member, approximately 28 trees are arranged to be cut down, and 12 have already been taken out. These empty spaces along the East Valley Road, say protestors, have affected community ecology, as well as disrupted the community’s skyline.
Red-shouldered hawks and monarch butterflies are only two types of species that make their homes in eucalyptus trees, particularly around the area where cutting has begun. Those involved in area wildlife preservation are especially concerned with keeping the animals’ habitat intact. During public comment, one woman brought in three different species of stuffed birds to giver her audience a visual representation of those being affected by the situation.
People have also expressed concern at possible consequences of the new empty spaces where the trees used to be. Community member John Venable exhibited several pictures showing people parked in the newly vacant area, and using the area to park a backhoe. Several Montecito residents complained about the parking issue, feeling it disrupts the neighborhood. Others simply mourn the historical loss of the trees, as the eucalyptus trees are a celebrated part of the landscape.
“There’s no going back, there’s no saving the 12 trees,” said Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker. “I think the actions this board needs to take at this point have to do with the future, and certainly the stopping or holding up of any future cutting until this is reviewed by us, the county, and the community as a whole.”
Unfortunately for the upset members of the community, the MPC has no jurisdiction over Caltrans’ project and cannot order them to stop. Through prolonged discussion with each other and the public, the commission came up with several potential solutions for dealing with the issue. In one scenario, the MPC staff will contact all residents in the Birnam Wood area requesting that those who have applied for cutting permits wait until a compromise can be made. Caltrans may also be appealed to on the basis that they are interfering with the Montecito Community Plan.
If personal entreaties fail, there is always the legal option. To be able to remove a tree, landscapers must give good reason why it’s necessary. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), state and local agencies must follow a certain protocol for analyzing the environmental effects and disclosing information to the public. If Caltrans has not followed CEQA procedures, then the commission can put a halt to the project until the situation has been properly evaluated. Members of the commission want to explore the possibility of simply trimming the trees rather than removing them completely.
No definite plan of attack was made this meeting, but it was the beginning of the process. The commission will continue to explore other options and make decisions at a later meeting.