When are palm trees too tall and therefore dangerous?

Mission Hills is San Diego’s most pleasant neighborhood because of its old homes and mature landscaping including streets lined with ancient palm trees provided long ago by the legendary horticulturalist Kate Sessions.

Ms. Sessions founded the Mission Hills Nursery on Fort Stockton Drive, which just celebrated its 100th birthday.

No one questioned “the mother of Balboa Park” when she planted the young palm trees along streets adjacent to her business.

For many decades, joggers, strollers, children going to and from school, drivers, and residents have enjoyed the sublime beauty of the growing palm trees bordering Fort Stockton Drive, Sunset Boulevard and a dozen other streets which checkerboard the old neighborhood.

A similar arboreal visual was created along Waring Road in Allied Gardens. Great old trees draped their limbs across the roadway creating a shady tunnel through which commuters enjoyed going to and from Interstate 8.

As time went on the visual delight was achieved at too high a price.

Heaving sidewalks; regular obstruction of their water and sewer lines; and damage to their homes’ foundations occurred as the various tree roots aggressively sought ever more water.

The sewer line obstructions were especially aggravating because of disputes between the private plumber and the city staff as to whose property the obstruction was under.

The city staff would not clear out beyond their property line though the trees belonged to them. And the city staff would not allow the private plumber to root out under city property.

This resulted in ever-increasing numbers of headaches as the trees luxuriated in access to the water provided by the utility pipes flowing among their roots.

As their city council member, I was confronted with the political dilemma of protecting the adjacent homeowners from the thirsty trees while preserving the pleasant visuals enjoyed by the commuters passing under the leafy canopy.

The aggravation was resolved after approaching each homeowner with a blank form demanding the tree in front of their home be removed.

If they signed, the tree came down, if they did not sign, the tree remained.

The result was outrage from the commuters and relief from the local homeowners.

Now, 100 or so residents of Mission Hills that are beneficiaries of Kate Sessions’ horticultural largesse are facing a similar but more dangerous dilemma.

Just as traveling Waring Road was an arboristic pleasure, Fort Stockton Drive and its extension, Sunset Boulevard evokes a similar satisfaction.

The Mission Hills residents are faced with the predictable prospect that these now giant palm trees will fall down unless replaced prior to that.

When they do fall (and they all will eventually), it will be a miracle if they don’t crush adjacent homes or a cars full of motorists or joggers, or young children during their daily walk to Grant Elementary School.

The adjacent picture shows a palm tree planted at Lark Street and Fort Stockton Drive that fell and crushed the pictured car while another tree later fell on the owner making him a paraplegic who may have to have his legs amputated.

It is odd that the San Diego City Attorney can, with a straight face, deny the city knew or could have known about this danger. The trees have been growing and falling there for decades.

Were there not any number of city council representatives for the area who could see the tall trees and recognize the danger?

How about the thousands of times police officers drove down those streets on regular patrols? How about street supervisors whose direct responsibility these trees are?

Do they all wear blinkers? Is the city credo “hear no danger, see no danger, ignore all danger” to the public? Do they all wear horse blinkers?

Since the city attorney denied in court that I sent the city adequate notice, I hereby confirm publically to you dear reader that I have subsequently sent a notice directly to every council member, the mayor, and the city attorney.

Wouldn’t it be better to spend city money on replacement trees than on future civil damages?

Shouldn’t the city be in the business of protecting the public, not covering their derrieres?

Everyone knows the idiom: “What goes up must come down.”

When are a palm trees “too tall” and thus a danger requiring their replacement?

I say that when the tree trimming truck can no longer reach the palm fronds, they are too tall and should be replaced.

What do you say?

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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1 UserComments
m valentine 4:18pm February 26, 2014

Thank you for your letter. Many CA cities have this problem. I agree, the cost to replace a tree is small compared to litagation and what effect can befall people and property. Maybe another law, there ought to be a law on the height that palm trees can grow. Please make it happen sombody!!!