Thursday, October 2, 2008

adventures at the HPC meeting

Last night we hied us down to the City Council chambers to ask the Historic Preservation Commission to allow us to cut down the chinaberry tree that is strangling, starving, and stunting our fig tree.

We have now made it through the entire process, and I feel very well treated. The city staff was a pleasure to work with; they were polite, helpful, efficient, and most of all, transparent, calling us with updates, clarifications, and further information at every step of the way. If only state and federal dealings could be so smooth. And I'd be saying that even if our application had been turned down.

Because, in the event, we were approved. I worried (okay, I still worry) that we were being given preferential treatment for being involved in Pomona Heritage and for having hired Commissioner Van Allen to consult with us (back before she was a commissioner) about our yard. On the other hand, the HPC bent over backward to help a couple who wanted to replace their metal casement windows with vinyl, despite the applicant's visibly (and audibly) increasing frustration.

The other thing I continue to squirm about is the justification of the tree removal. I had written the application on the basis of the smothered fig tree only (and the instability of the branches), but the city staff noted also that the concrete was cracking and that the tree was interfering with power lines. If any commissioners are reading this, I do not think those justify tree removal! A tree is always going to be more valuable to me than a patch of cement.

The last surprise was that one of the commissioners recused himself on the grounds that he lives too close to us. Commish, stop in and say hey if you're passing by!

Last but not least, I can't help but note that, again, personal illness featured in the other presentation that I saw. I was tempted to make something up for us (chinaberry allergy? barkophobia? passing reference to the time I frostbit my butt in South America?), but I didn't want to make John Clifford shoot coffee through his nose in the back of the auditorium.


Ed said...

I was a little worried for you during the discussion when I heard the city's arborist suggested trimming was sufficient.

I was wondering if each tree trunk had a diameter larger than 10 inches about 4-5 feet high. Based on the presentation and my understanding of Chinaberry trees, you had 4 distinct trees. Although the city staff referred to it as a multi-trunk, it sounds like that may not be the case. I'm just curious for the intellectual exercise since you were approved anyway.

I'm also curious if the 3 arborists that you hired had suggested that the trees should be removed because of the possibility of falling on the house, electrical lines, garage, or neighbor's house. From Van Allen's comments, it doesn't appear that these trees actually give you much warning when they will fall, so the "emergency" precondition stated in the tree ordinance may be relevant with this tree variety. I'm wondering if you might have a different opinion of those power lines if in the process of falling the tree yanked the lines and caused damage to the house.

I love the wonderful tree canopies that exist in our historic neighborhoods, but in your case the trees are probably less than twenty years old, so shouldn't we prioritize the safety of a 90 year old house over these trees? I'm concerned that no commissioner made that argument.

These trees could have sprouted when Clinton was first elected as president. Historic? Historic character?

Anduhrew said...

I'm pretty sure that's a multi trunk (if that photo is of the tree) it's kind of like a double redwood or double sequoia, not common but happens for the chinaberry. there is also no seem between the trunks and where they meet indicating it is from a single source. of course a horticulturist or arborist would know better than a landscape designer, so go with them.

Ed said...

Please don't misconstrue my above comments to mean that I don't see value in preserving the trees in the historic districts.

My real concern is the $500 for a Major COA to remove a tree, and my fear that a homeowner (or their neighbor) will pay the price for a deferred tree removal.

meg said...

Our tree is definitely a Clinton baby: The previous owner sawed it off at ground level, and she didn't move in until 1991.

As to four separate trunks (all >10" at chest level, btw) vs. multitrunk, I'm not sure. But there are definitely seams, Anduhrew; at the base, the four are bound together by a single bark, but they are separate all the way into the ground.

City staff, oddly, did not give the arborist's full verdict, at least as they reported it to us over the phone. He (arborist) said that although the tree was healthy, chinaberries like ours have a tendency to shear off and dump a trunk without any warning. I suspect that that more than anything was the reason that they recommended approval -- but I could be wrong.

In any case, we were told that the arborist recommended either removal or annual, severe trimming.

John Clifford said...


Glad everything came out well for you guys. While I have weighed in on some trees in the past (usually where it is clearly a safety or other issue, such as a tree pulling up a foundation), I try and stay away from them as it's not my area of expertise. I trust that Dawn VanAllen is not going to let anything happen to historic trees, or to trees just for the heck of it (prior to becoming a commissioner, she was PH's go-to person on tree issues).

Too bad you guys didn't stay for the final 2 items. They concerned moving Eddie Cortez's garage to a new location (as opposed to demolition) and the development that is going to replace it at the corner of White and Orange Grove. Even through PH had worked with the developer and had gotten a lot of concessions in the design, it was still not perfect and the commission decided that "craftsman" was not really appropriate for that particular corner. They sent them back to the drawing board to try and develop an appropriate "mid-century modern" commercial structure (No one could say what a craftsman commercial structure would even look like) to better reflect that site in the historic district and the surrounding building. It is an interesting corner with the mid-century liquor store across the street, and the A-Frame right next door.

At least there were no health issues brought up on that one.

Anduhrew said...

one other thing to consider. fig tree = source of food and acclimated to our Mediterranean climate. chinaberry = source of ???

Anonymous said...

Aren't Chinaberry fruits poisonous?

meg said...

Indeed they are.

They also are bee- and butterfly-deterrents. Hummingbirds tend to steer clear too.

Pride in Garfield Park said...

A very tall and lovely tree is sitting on the property line between our house and our neighbors -- I'm told it is a species native to California, but I cannot recall the name. We're wondering whether we need to trim the tree (huge branches right above the neighbor's house is a concern to him).

We're not in a historic district, but I'd nevertheless like to do what I can to preserve both the tree and the homes sitting under its branches. Time for some research. Any recommendations on who I can contact for an in-person consultation about whether trimming is needed, who would be qualified to do the job, etc.

Take care,


K said...

Yeah, John, I kind of wished we'd been able to stay longer, too. We saw the beginning of the presentation, but I understand it went on for several more hours. It sounded pretty interesting.

I was impressed that the applicants had come up with a plan to move the old garage rather than destroy it, and were trying so hard to make the commission happy. I'm not sure why new buildings in the district should be in some particular historic style, rather than whatever interesting shape an architect can devise, but I guess too many architects and owners wind up going for "shapeless cheap box" in the end.

Given the block-long hole in the dirt on Second Street that won't get built on any time soon, I'm pretty happy to have the commission looking out for us!

Ed said...

John, does the HPC have authority over all new construction in the historic districts? I must have left just before Meg and K, so I didn't see any of that presentation either.

City arborist--Commissioner Elias briefly mentioned 'liability' in his comments, I wonder if the city arborist's report was the rationale for that word. I'm not a lawyer, but let's see, I want to remove a tree because of denies removal....tree falls and causes damage. Who's liable for the damage?

Can you imagine paying $500 for a major COA for tree removal and being denied? Bummer, do you at least get your money back? Sorry to harp, but when I have an itch, I just keeeep scratching.

John Clifford said...


Yes, HPC has approval of style and aesthetics in a district to ensure that the district maintains its "unique character." We've had several in-fill projects come before the commission, usually in Wilton District, and they are pretty insistent that buildings mimic the homes within the neighborhood.

When Pomona Heritage and Historical Society met with the developer and staff, staff had already had the developer working toward a "craftsman" like project. We weighed in (heavily) on details, such as the original blank wall along Orange Grove, where we got the developer to put "faux windows and doors."

We should have been more proactive in looking at the neighborhood and suggesting alternatives to craftsman (for some reason staff gets stuck on historic=craftsman, in other parts of the city they like to suggest Spanish--all the time). However, between a desire to save the gas station and get something that wasn't abysmal, we were less than perfect in our due diligence.

Garfield: Be aware that while there is a historic tree ordinance in the district, there is also a city-wide ordinance on Oak trees. If your tree is a native California Oak, then you'll need a permit to trim.

Ed, I think that Mitch Elias takes his role very seriously and tree issues in the past have weighed heavily on liability issues. As for paying $500 and being denied, I do believe that staff would recommend against going to commission if they felt that you really might be turned down. So if you go against staff's recommendation and pay the $500 and get turned down, you only have yourself to blame. There is also an appeal of any decisions. There is a fee for that unless you can get a councilperson to waive it. No one in the years that I've been following this has ever had to pay for an appeal.

meg said...

John wrote:
"As for paying $500 and being denied, I do believe that staff would recommend against going to commission if they felt that you really might be turned down. So if you go against staff's recommendation and pay the $500 and get turned down, you only have yourself to blame."

Actually, my experience was that you pay at the counter, before any staff members even look at your application. When we did it, they checked the application over to make sure it was filled out correctly, but only at my request. And then they said, "We'll get back to you in a week or so about whether or not we recommend going to the HPC."

In other words, I'm with Ed on this one. My main concern is that the high fee will encourage people to cut down trees illegally.

Ed said...

John, thanks for the info. The new home across from Lincoln elementary resembles a bungalow, so I was wondering if we were just lucky or someone was carrying a big stick.

The craftsman commercial building in the village was a nice addition, but I don't know if it would work with multiple tenants.

"However, between a desire to save the gas station and get something that wasn't abysmal, we were less than perfect in our due diligence." You're kidding, right? The fact the city hasn't already approved another "ugly" for the site is the knowledge that the vocal members of the historic organizations won't sit silently if they disagree.

And to Mitch......I have no doubt that he takes the position seriously!

Pride in Garfield Park said...

Thanks, John. I'll definitely figure out the species of the tree before moving forward with any trimming. I appreciate the heads-up.

John Clifford said...

Meg, hmmmmm. I wonder if they'd refund if you didn't move forward? Don't know the answer to that one.

Ed, thanks. You're absolutely right in that the previous city administration wouldn't even have allowed us to see early plans, let alone comment on them. So I guess we should stop "kicking ourselves" for not getting it right either?

Ed said...

I'll point out that if you need to remove an oak tree, it will cost $500 just to receive approval from the city. Ouch!! I hope you're not on a fixed income. Should you remove the tree that a bird or squirrel might have planted to close to your house years ago or buy your kids new clothes,.....tough choice! :-)

Anonymous said...

I think $500 to for permission to remove a tree is obscene. Exactly the kind of thing that leads to ignoring the rules or not bothering to improve property.