July 2017

Two historic Canary Island pines towering above Chapman Avenue were deemed “public interest” by the City of Orange and spared the chainsaw. 

City of Orange and concerned neighbors protect  historic trees

By Tina Richards

“This is what a small town does,” Orange Councilman Mike Alvarez summarized after a lengthy council discussion of the fate of two mature Canary Island pines, “we talk about trees.”

The trees, planted in the 1960s, were said to be standing in the way of a property owner’s ability to lease her building.  Gina Oklejas, the owner of the property at 514 Chapman Avenue, wanted to cut them down.  Her new tenant, Woody’s Diner, was apparently unable to get insurance coverage because the trees sat so close to the building and were deemed a safety hazard.  Armed with a letter from the insurance company, Oklejas asked the City of Orange for a permit to remove them. 

The city denied the permit, primarily because the pines are considered historic trees and their location is considered “public interest property.” That is, the property contributes to the aesthetics and ambience of the surrounding community – in this case, Old Towne.  Historic trees are discussed at length in the city municipal code and are protected by ordinance.

Value added
“The scale and size of the trees are in balance and accord with the other mature trees that border Chapman Avenue, and provide a significant value to the surrounding and adjacent landscape,” Community Development Director Bonnie Hagan explained when she denied the permit.

Mike Alvarez appealed the decision on the property owner’s behalf and agendized it for the June 13 city council meeting.  Alvarez believed that it was within the property owner’s right to remove the trees, and that the city code was being misinterpreted.  He found that Canary Island pines did not appear on the city’s historic tree list and that the property, two blocks from the Old Towne district, is not “public interest.”  In addition, he said, the ordinances are vague about historic trees that present a hazard; it’s not clear what can and cannot be done.

City Attorney Wayne Winthers explained to the council that there was “no difference between a tree on the historic list and a tree of historic value.” Noting that the historic tree list was created in the 1970s and out of date, he pointed out that ordinances were written to prevent the destruction of trees as development occurred.  He further explained that the definition of "public interest property" speaks for itself. “That’s what brings these trees under the ordinance, they are of interest to the community.”

Picture of health
The health of the trees is also important, City Manager Rick Otto said.  In this case, they are mature, well-rooted and properly maintained.

A half dozen members of the public spoke out in favor of preserving the trees.  They stressed that the healthy trees presented a small level of risk, that majestic trees raise property values and “happiness,” that the pines are part of the city’s history.  Another noted that Canary Island pines have deep tap roots and “are not going anywhere.”  

A more philosophical speaker admonished the council that being “business friendly” is one thing, but “we have to look at the whole picture and balance economics with nature.”  She noted that mature trees are one of the things that define Orange’s charm, and if every property owner could cut down every inconvenient tree, the city would lose its heritage.  “Who are we?” she asked. “Who are we going to be?”  

The ensuing council discussion on the topic was unanimously tree-friendly.  Mayor Tita Smith recalled the days when the property in question was the well-known Snack Shop, reiterating its value as “public interest.”  She reported that the city lost 300 trees during the drought, and that for 20 years, Orange has been designated a “tree city.”  

Hold the chainsaws
Kim Nichols added that trees, in general, have value, and that if they are unsafe, the property owner could look to mitigate that first before taking them out.  

Mark Murphy noted that “historic correctness” is what people remember.  He recalled that when the city attempted to replace the pines in the plaza with queen palms, “The landscape architect was run out of town.” 

Fred Whitaker dug a little deeper.  He used his laptop to look up the company that told Woody’s Dinner it couldn’t get insured with the trees there. “This isn’t even an insurance company,” Whitaker reported. “It’s a broker.  I don’t think a broker can deny insurance; it just tries to find the client the best deal.”  The councilman surmised that the broker told him the trees had to go in order to find a better insurance rate.

It was also pointed out that the Canary Island pines had never before prevented a tenant at that location from procuring insurance. 

“I was just trying to find a win-win,” Alvarez said of his appeal.  “Staff has spent way too much time on these trees.  You’ve been heard,” he said to property owner Oklejas, “I will withdraw the appeal.”

City Manager Otto will see that the ordinances are clarified and the list of historic trees updated.