The fate of 44 century-old Eucalyptus trees along East Valley Road (Highway 192) in front of Birnam Wood Golf Club is becoming a contentious issue between those who support and those who challenge the trees’ potential removal. Despite last week’s promises from Caltrans to suspend tree removal permits in order to further investigate why the old trees are scheduled for the chainsaw, three permits to take down 18 trees were reportedly issued late last Thursday.
The agency is expecting to approve two additional permits to take down 14 more trees this week. According to Jim Shivers, Caltrans Public Information Officer, “The decision is pretty definitive. It’s a safety issue. The Birnam Wood property owners clearly conveyed to us that these trees could possibly pose a danger. They contend that in the case of a fire or severe weather conditions these trees pose a hazard to homeowners, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.” The strand of 76 remaining, 100-foot-tall trees straddle the Caltrans-owned right-of-way and private property of Birnam Wood homeowners, who requested the agency issue encroachment permits to allow the removal of the landmark trees.
Recently, neighbors beyond the boarders of the gated golf course community staged protests and collected over 500 signatures on a petition to stop the destruction of the trees, which were originally planted sometime in the late 1880s as a lemon grove border. Robert Peterson, one of the organizers, said, “We’re a grass roots organization of local residents and homeowners who are trying to preserve these magnificent trees. Someone had to step forward as the steward of these trees. These trees are part of our history. Montecito is famous for its trees and I see it as a battle over the beauty of nature versus mountain views, real estate values, and clearing the way to widen the road in the future.”
According to Shivers, residents of Birnam Wood are paying over $10,000 per tree for the removal, and Caltrans is not picking up the bill. Peterson, a local resident since 1969, calls this, “a blatant case of class warfare.” Diedre Hanssen, former Montecito Association boardmember has a different take on the trees, “Those trees explode like bombs in a fire. If they fall down they could damage property, hurt people, and block our evacuation route. I support taking the trees out from a safety standpoint.”
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s office issued a statement on the matter this week, saying: “Due to the location of the trees being on private property outside the Coastal Zone, the County has limited jurisdiction over the trees. With this being the case Supervisor Carbajal and his staff have been in continuous conversations with Caltrans officials and representatives from Senator Tony Strickland and Assemblymember Pedro Nava regarding this matter. Moreover, Supervisor Carbajal has also contacted Caltrans District 5 Director, Richard Krumholz and offered to work with him in the effort to address both the safety concerns of the property owners and Caltrans as well the greater community concerns regarding potential impacts to the landscape and character of this unique part of Montecito.”
Meanwhile, back at Caltrans District 5, District Permit Engineer Steve Senet isn’t quite as convinced as Shivers, “At some point I think we’re ready to lick the stamps, but we also feel an obligation to find common ground. The permits are approved but I’m withholding issuance. The Montecito Association called me this morning and said they wanted to get involved. Highway 192 could be relinquished to the county and taken out of Caltrans hands. We recently relinquished a portion of Highway 227 that goes through Arrroy Grande. If the county finds a reason to issue permits, then the Montecito Community Plan would be implemented.” Once the Montecito Plan is implemented, a more thorough review process would take place. Darlene Bierig, Land Use Chair, confirmed the association’s interest via email. “Yes, we are involved. The removal of 100-year-old trees is an important issue to the entire community.”
Recently, as Senet stated, the Montecito Association has jumped in the fray. According to association representative Darlene Bierig: “The Montecito Association is spending an enormous amount of hours working on this issue with all parties. In a nut shell, our mission is to maintain the historic semi-rural character of our community as defined in our Community Plan. We view these 100 year old specimen trees as an integral component of our community’s semi-rural character and semi-rural street-scape. In addition to requesting a replanting program for the trees that have already been removed, we are requesting that Cal Trans fully consider all information before making a decision on the five new removal applications pending before them.”
“If someone else can get involved at the county level,” said Senet, “to take over and provide an acceptable level of maintenance to satisfy the Birnam Wood homeowners, then the trees will stay. We can retract those permits at anytime prior to those trees coming down. It’s not Caltrans’ desire to cut the trees down; it’s the residents’.”