Tree warriors halt LA plan to destroy up to 13,000 trees for sidewalk repairs

Trees of Los Angeles can let out a deep breath of fresh oxygen after a recent court ruling halted the City of L.A.’s plan to chop down as many as 13,000 shade trees citywide, in the name of sidewalk repairs.

The Los Angeles Superior Court Mitchell Beckloff sided with tree advocates and declared the Environmental Impact Report for the city’s proposed repair program “fundamentally flawed” in late January.

The lawsuit was filed by advocates from Angelenos for Trees and United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles who were distressed by the plan to kill thousands of trees without considering alternative repair methods that would preserve trees.

“We saw that they were proposing to remove over 12,000 trees and we felt that that was excessive. Other cities manage their sidewalk tree conflict easily and for whatever reason L.A. does not,” said said Jeanne McConnell of Angelenos for Trees.

The city argued that its sidewalk repair program and associated tree removals was a justified effort to comply with the Willits settlement — a 2016 class action settlement that requires the city to spend $1.4 billion to improve its sidewalks and walkways for those with disabilities.

“The city decided to prepare a new ordinance, the Sidewalk Repair Program, to protect the urban forest as much as possible while streamlining procedures so as to not hinder implementation of the Willits Settlement,” wrote then-City Attorney Mike Feuer in a July 2022 response to the petition filed against the city.

“As the comprehensive EIR is more than amply supported by substantial evidence, none of Petitioners’ claims have merit,” said the city’s attorneys.

Judge Beckloff, however, disagreed. He ruled that the EIR failed to thoroughly examine the impacts to wildlife and the environmental consequences of trading mature trees for young replacement trees.

His ruling grants trees a temporary reprieve from the chopping block.

Advocates say it’s a good thing for residents, too. The presence of trees in a neighborhood helps cool the temperature, lower electricity bills, clean the air, increase biodiversity and has even been shown to reduce crime, said McConnell.

The city may now appeal the court’s decision, create a new EIR to address the problems identified, or return to the drawing board with a new sidewalk repair plan.

Attorneys Jamie Hall and Sabrina Venskus, who represented the advocates, said they recognize the dire need for sidewalk repairs and hope the city opts to redo the plan.

“They can say ‘You know what? These things that we said were infeasible alternatives, we have now determined that they’re feasible’,” said Hall. “Like maybe meandering the sidewalks (around trees), building sidewalks out of different materials that are more flexible, using more root pruning.”

Tree advocate Joanne D’Antonio pictured with one of the oak trees she helped to preserve near Magnolia Blvd in North Hollywood, CA, Friday, February 10, 2023. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

McConnell said Santa Monica, Pasadena, Ojai, Portland, Seattle, New York are all cities where local governments have managed to balance sidewalk repairs and tree preservation.

In addition to the environmental benefits, advocates also say that there is an economic and racial justice imperative to save trees.

“In low-income communities, street trees play a more important role than they do in communities that have high canopy cover,” said Hall. “If you look to South L.A. or other areas, you’ll see far less green and that’s because there’s more apartment complexes, there’s multi-family units, and also where there are single-family homes there’s not as many trees.”

Environmentalist and tree advocate Lynetta McElroy has been fighting for years to draw attention to the shortage of trees in predominantly Black communities in Los Angeles like her own.

“I am huge on planting trees in every community, especially here in South L.A. where we really need it,” she said.

While this was seen as a victory for trees and community members in South LA, McElroy said the problem has only worsened since then as new apartment complexes replace single family homes and their mature trees and greenery.

“We’ve seen how our State legislators along with developers are working hard to destroy communities and to put up lots of apartments, put up more concrete, thereby removing trees and greenery, which will make South LA a very hot, unlivable and unnatural area,” she said.

Trees play a major role in mitigating the urban heat island effect, in which buildings and paved surfaces trap heat and increase the temperature of a neighborhood.

“It’s been shown that under a tree canopy it can be 30 degrees cooler than the surrounding area,” said McConnell.

Jeanne McConnell with oak trees in North Hollywood, CA, Friday, February 10, 2023. McConnell participated in a lawsuit against the city of LA seeking to halt the planned removal of 13,000 trees in the name of sidewalk repairs. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

The cooling effect of trees is especially valuable in the San Fernando Valley where McConnell lives and temperatures can be blistering during summer heat waves. Their presence can also help residents decrease their electricity bills by using less air conditioning.

Trees are also helpful in times of intense rainfall like Los Angeles experienced in January.

“When you have trees you’re less likely to have flooding as they capture vast amounts of water in their roots and then give it back to their leaves,” said environmentalist Joanne D’Antonio, adding that these leaves in turn will help clean the air.

D’Antonio is not a formal party in the lawsuit, but is a representative on the City’s Community Forest Advisory Committee. In this role she helped write a letter on the environmental impacts of tree removals, which the court cited in its decision.

CFAC members are particularly worried about the effects of tree removal on local and migratory birds.

“When a tree is removed it’s not ‘mitigation’ to plant two trees, because the birds don’t have the same services of a mature tree while those two trees grow,” said D’Antonio.

The letter from CFAC pointed out that the North American bird population had declined by 30 percent since 1970 and explained that because Los Angeles is “on the Pacific Flyway and trees provide nesting and foraging habitat, preserving (the) urban forest will have a profound impact on attempts at stabilizing bird populations.”

D’Antonio is also a supporter of using alternative sidewalk repair methods to preserve trees.

While the city has shied away from some methods — such as meandering sidewalks around trees — due to their price tag, D’Antonio pointed out that money could be secured for this under the urban forestry program of the new federal infrastructure bill.

“Street trees are the only city infrastructure that actually increases in value over time,” said attorney Sabrina Venskus in a written statement. “The (city’s) EIR pits mature street trees against repaired sidewalks, yet that is a false choice: other cities are able to preserve their mature street trees while ensuring safe sidewalks, and Los Angeles can too if it will make its urban forest infrastructure a priority.”

Related links

LA city panel unanimously backs wildlife district, to save animals from people
State boosts funding for school greening projects to replace hot shadeless playgrounds
DWP’s Cool LA seeks ways to bring shade and AC to hot neighborhoods that have neither
Where does LA need trees? Google to help city figure that out
Ahead of demolition, Studio City residents protest tree loss in Sportsmen’s Lodge development


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