It’s bad enough that an uncontrollable beetle from Southeast Asia is ravaging Southern California oak trees. Now, the residents of Thousand Oaks, where the trees occupy a special place in the community, have encountered another deadly threat: mall developers.
The owners of suburban Westlake Plaza, northwest of Los Angeles, bulldozed 170 trees last April, taking advantage of a city ordinance loophole, opened in 2010, that allows the planter of a tree to fell it. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Regency Centers Corp. received City Hall staff approval to remove the trees as part of a $25-million renovation, but the issue never came before the city council or planning commission for a public airing.
The destruction was over in a few days before public opposition could be registered. The city ordinance protects oak and landmark trees, including California sycamores more than 12 inches in diameter, California black walnuts and toyons 8 inches in diameter and California bay laurels at least 8 inches in diameter. Once upon a time, Thousand Oaks was almost completely covered by an oak forest.
Patrick Conway, vice president and regional officer for Regency Centers, told the Thousand Oaks Acorn that the trees were not being removed for frivolous reasons. “We’re not removing the gorgeous oak trees for additional parking.”
Instead, they were removing the “gorgeous” trees to help accommodate the addition of 8,000 square feet of mall space for new tenants, like Mendocino Farms, Le Pain Quotidien, a yoga studio and a juicery. Oh, and they said the trees were diseased and rotten.
“The majority of these trees have conks, tree bleeding or bee infestation that have caused them to be structurally unsafe,” according to a memo from Community Development Director John Prescott, whose department OK’d the tree removal. But the Los Angeles Times said that critics claimed they didn’t see any distressed trees.
And it wasn’t clear if all the trees being cut down were those planted by the original property owner. A number of large, stately trees, some hundreds of years old, are scattered throughout the property.
Although 170 trees were quickly cut down, public outrage may have saved a few others from destruction. The council passed a one-year moratorium on invoking the 2010 loophole and plans to remove four large “landmark” sycamores have been put on hold.
Residents seemed to harbor equal resentment for both the developer and city officials, who made no attempt to alert the public about what was about to happen. City Manager Scott Mitnick told the Acorn that “lessons were learned.”
Addressing a reporter’s question about the city’s responsibility to inform residents about matters of public interest, Mitnick rhetorically asked, “Should (we) have pushed harder to get them [the developer] to do that job better? In retrospect, probably.”