Responding to the vocal protests of a number of Montecito residents — up-in-arms over Caltrans’s recent removal of 12 eucalyptus trees along a stretch of East Valley Road that abuts the gated Birnam Wood community — Assemblymember Pedro Nava sent a letter to Caltrans on Thursday urging the agency to stop issuing additional permits that would mean the chainsawing of 28 more trees.
Earlier this month, Birnam Wood residents filed for encroachment permits with Caltrans — a necessary step whenever a private entity wants to alter anything on a Caltrans right-of-way — in order to chop down a number of the 100-year-old trees. The residents of the golf course neighborhood claim the colossal specimens, with their dense foliage and flakey bark, would pose a significant safety risk to the community in the event of a fire. Caltrans, said spokesperson Jim Shivers, granted the initial permits without much question, citing public safety as the agency’s number one concern and asserting proper environmental reviews were completed. As Shivers wouldn’t release the names of the Birnam Wood residents who did the filing, no one there could be reached for comment.
Since then, those protesting the trees’ removal and a perceived lack of transparency in the permitting process have — in addition to gathering more than 1,000 signatures in support and creating a Facebook group and Web site — gone straight to the top, enlisting the support of 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Assemblymember Nava. The infuriated group, which recently spoke out during a special meeting of the Montecito Planning Commission, charges that the trees are a staple piece of Montecito aesthetics, possessing significant historical and ecological value. They worry that in addition to the 28 trees at risk, the remaining 87 would be soon to fall should things continue the way they are.
In Nava’s letter to Caltrans, he requests an immediate moratorium on the approval of seven more encroachment permits for the contentious area. “While I appreciate CalTrans’ respect for the requests of Birnam Woods residents,” he wrote, “I have concerns that the wishes of the Montecito community at-large are being ignored, that the permit applications are based upon un-founded fears, and that the removal of these 87 trees will have long-term, undesirable environmental and land-use consequences.”
Nava also wrote that the pending encroachment permits aren’t exempt from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, “as exemptions do not apply if a project is, among other things, located in a particularly sensitive environment, results in significant cumulative impacts, or may result in damage to scenic resources.” Describing the trees as a “key aesthetic feature of Montecito,” Nava also cites his own concern that losing the trees could significantly impact native bird and monarch butterfly habitats.
He had sharp words for Caltrans as well as Birnam Woods residents, calling both parties out for not releasing any environmental or safety reports, “Not only have I yet to see a report, or documentation of any kind … but I have yet to see any such documentation showing the benefit of removing these trees. In fact, I would like to know whether any sort of analysis has been conducted to independently ascertain the threat of these trees to the safety of the Birnam Woods community.” Nava could not be reached for further comment.
Shivers, speaking on behalf of Caltrans’ 5th District Director Richard Krumholz, said that his office has read Nava’s letter and is still reviewing the issues raised within it. Caltrans, he said, has not issued any more permits and is still looking over the remaining applications. He declined to say one way or another, however, how the agency plans to proceed. Shivers did point out, though, that during this time of review, it’s his and Krumholz’s hope that the two factions of Montecito community members and homeowners will create a dialogue and hopefully reach some sort of agreement.
Those on the tree-saving side of the fence are confident that Nava’s letter — in addition to prolific environmental attorney Marc Chytilo’s detailed letter to Krumholz that, sent on Wednesday, laid out legal reasoning why Caltrans should hold off on issuing any more permits — will help their cause. Montecito resident Sam Tyler, who helped spearhead the anti-removal movement, said that the group will continue to gather signatures and raise funds, but that “it’s great to have someone with authority on the state level on [our] side.” “We’re confident we won’t have to sue Caltrans,” he went on, “but if the [Birnam Wood] residents and Caltrans had properly pruned the trees in the first place, this wouldn’t even be an issue.”