By Tina Richards

With three separate mature Canary Island pines, deemed “historic” by the City of Orange, threatened in recent months, the city council passed an urgency ordinance, Feb. 13, providing broader protections for trees of public interest.

The city has had a tree ordinance since 1973, intended to preserve  “certain” trees and allowing the conditional removal of others, with a permit.  At that time, the city created a list of “historic trees,” but the ordinance was not intended to refer to those trees only.  The criteria for preservation extended to mature trees that were in an historic district or were on “public interest properties,” defined as those that contributed to the overall landscape and character of the city.

Last year, the city denied a permit application to cut down two Canary Island pines on Chapman Avenue in front of Woody’s Diner.  The rejection was based on the 1973 city statute.  Last month, a permit to cut down another pine on Chapman, two blocks from Woody’s, was also denied.

An uncertain tree
That property owner, however, retained an attorney to challenge the denial on the grounds that the city ordinance applied only to trees on the historic list. Robert Warne’s attorney, Paula Meyer, claims that the pine in question is not one of the “certain” trees referred to in the ordinance, that the property it sits on is not public interest, and that the ordinance itself is “unconstitutionally vague.”   “There may be public policy reasons to deny the permit,” she said, “but they are not covered in the ordinance.  You have to follow the law.”

The city council, supported by the city attorney’s interpretation of the ordinance, believes it is following the law.  The revisions in the urgency ordinance are not “trying to capture the intent of a past council,” City Attorney Gary Sheats said, “ but to represent the wishes of this council.”

Revisions to the 1973 code will not apply to Warne’s case, but the city hopes its more precise language will prevent future conflict.  The definition of historic trees, determined by virtue of their origin, size, uniqueness or rarity, has been expanded to say, “Trees so classified may be, but are not limited to, those on a master list,” and the master list may be revised by resolution at the discretion of the city council.

Rings around history
The new ordinance reflects the city’s concerns that it may lose mature trees that have, over the years, grown in stature and now provide special interest in properties, contributing to the overall streetscape and historic character of the city.

The definition of public interest property is now defined as “based upon a variety of factors, which may include, but not be limited to, public view within an historic district, and also the public interest of the city in property containing trees of historical, unique and aesthetic value.”

The urgency ordinance required at least four “yes” votes, as opposed to a simple three-vote majority. Councilman Mike Alvarez cast the only vote against the ordinance.  “It still seems vague,” he said.  “It’s not giving the public any guidelines, and I wish it would.  At what point does a property owner have to pull a permit?  If looking for the answer in this ordinance, they’re not going to find it.”

“There is no clear bright answer,” Sheats advised. “But the criteria is listed in the ordinance.”  

It takes affect immediately. 

Urgency protection activated for Orange historic trees