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Destruction of mature trees at WDAAC

Tree-stump
California black walnut stump after removal. Tree was north of Covell Blvd. and along the west side of the West Davis Active Adult Community development site.

By Greg McPherson and Larry Guenther

On a global scale, planting billion of trees to combat climate change will be for naught if we don’t stop clearcutting the Amazon and other forests. The same idea applies on a local scale. Tree Davis’s upcoming planting of 1,000 trees will matter very little if healthy, mature trees are removed from development sites. Large amounts of carbon dioxide stored in these big, old trees is rapidly released after removal, whereas it takes many years for young trees to acquire biomass and accumulate carbon.

In November Davis voters approved Measure L, which established Baseline Project Features to guide development of the West Davis Active Adult Community (WDAAC) property, which is located west of the Sutter-Davis Hospital and north of Covell Blvd. In early June we noticed that 14 large, old California black walnut trees were among a host of trees removed from the site. We wondered why these veteran trees were not protected in a greenspace buffer along Covell Blvd.

Davis has a progressive policy toward conservation of trees on private property. Its Tree Ordinance identifies trees over 5” diameter at breast height (dbh) as “trees of significance” and requires that residents obtain permits prior to removal. In the case of development projects like WDAAC, the Ordinance states that, “the design and placement of development should attempt to incorporate existing healthy trees into the site design.” It requires an arborist report and one or more of the following when a project requires removal of trees: onsite replacement, offsite replacement, and/or payment of in lieu fees. Onsite replacement requires no net loss in tree dbh, 1” planted for each 1” lost. The Ordinance does not state that these replacement trees are above and beyond trees required to be planted along streets, in parking lots, parks and other public spaces.

The WDAAC Report found 103 trees of significance, including the 14 walnuts. Ten walnut trees had crowns that spread 40 feet or more. Many had multiple trunks from the base and five had an adjusted dbh greater than 24 inches. Of these 14 trees, 4 were recommended for removal because of poor health and structure. The remaining 10 trees were recommended for removal because of conflicts with site development. In fact, ALL 103 trees of significance were to be removed, regardless of their health or location. Conveniently, this finding eliminated need for a tree preservation plan. 

After reviewing other documents related to the project we found that Mitigation Measure 3.4-11 in the certified Environmental Impact Report requires that a tree modification permit be submitted to the City prior to the removal of a tree, and in lieu fees assessed and paid by the project proponent. Also, we found that the City Tree Commission did not review the development plan, while other Commissions did (Natural Resources, Open Space & Habitat, Recreation and Parks).

Several questions have emerged:

  • Why wasn’t the plan forwarded to the Tree Commission for review?
  • Did City staff and the developer explore ways to preserve healthy veteran trees by incorporating them into buffers?
  • Did the city receive and process a permit for removal, prior to tree removal?
  • What form of mitigation is required? If mitigation is onsite, where will the 1,004 15 gal trees (each 1” dbh) be planted to offset the 1,004 inches of dbh removed? Will these replacements be in addition to the street, parks, and parking lot trees required by ordinance? Or did the city receive the in-lieu fee payment? If so, is the payment in the amount cited in the report ($126,420 for all 69 healthy trees removed)? 

Changes in staffing and on-going negotiations with the developer have made it difficult for city staff to answer these questions. City policy provides the power required to protect our canopy, but the will to do so appears lacking. One suggestion is to strengthen criteria for preservation (or removal) of existing trees used by staff during review of Planned Developments. For example, questions to ask include;

  • Have General Plan policies regarding trees and tree preservation been followed?
  • Have existing healthy trees of significant value, as an existing condition on the site, been incorporated in the proposed site plan? If not, have the values of preserving existing trees been reasonably balanced with the general objectives of the project?
  • Can the existing trees be incorporated in proposed open space areas such as parks, neighborhood greenbelts, ag buffer areas, natural open space areas, greenstreet spaces, and private open spaces?
  • For those trees that cannot reasonably be preserved in the project, has their loss been acceptably mitigated?

Our mature tree canopy is a valuable historic, cultural, aesthetic, and environmental resource. It contributes to the richness of life we experience every day in Davis. Destruction of healthy old trees makes each of us poorer. Let’s make sure that these “residents” aren’t clearcut again without a thought. 

Dr. McPherson is a retired US Forest Service urban forest researcher and Mr. Guenther is a recent member of the Davis Tree Commission. Both are members of the Tree Davis Board of Directors.

Comments

Colin Walsh

This is really tragic.
The fact WDAAC has been renamed Bretton Woods is even more comical.

Robert D Canning

For what it is worth, these large and mature walnut trees were home for many years to raptors who nested there season after season. It is sad to see these stumps where there was once living trees and homes for wildlife.

Donna Lemongello

Developers always seem to manage to fly under the radar until it's too late for whatever they kill. Sickening as usual, and nothing new. It is impossible for people to keep track of this stuff and they take every advantage of that. What they are going to do is only apparent after it's too late. Where does City diligence fall, or I guess I really mean fail, in these situations? Of course if they had any conscience themselves all the regulation would not be needed.

Nancy Price

What a travesty and tragedy. I was shocked when I first saw those stumps. You'd think the developer, aka the destroyer, would have hauled the stumps away in the dead of night hoping none of us would notice.

Thank you both for writing this article. I fully support your excellent proposals.

The only reason there are any mature trees at The Cannery is due to the great commitment of several Davis residents then members of Trees Davis, if I remember, and myself, along with Ashley Feeney and a representative from The Cannery. We walked the site several times in the fall of 2013 and made a map of the trees to be saved. It took some persuading. In fact, later in Spring, 2014 when the site was being graded, we had to report to the city that the circle of protective tape had, in many cases, be made smaller and the soil close to roots was being compacted and again call the city in 2015. Several of us spoke at City Council meetings and wrote op-eds and Letters to the Editor.

Here is one letter I wrote to The Enterprise, Nov. 2013.

Should Tress Have Standing?
Nancy Price

Those advocating to save the mature Cannery valley oaks and cedars make the case that these trees have “value” – different from clearing the site, building a profitable project for the developers and providing the city economic benefits.

Implicit in the comments that these trees are mature, 50 – 150-plus years, have thrived without special care or irrigation, provided habitat for various species, and provided other eco-system functions such as absorbing CO2, is another value - that these trees just have the inherent right to exist as they are. Furthermore, it seems to me that those who want to save these trees are also implicitly saying the these trees are part of the living commons of nature of which we are the guardians for present and future generations.

The legal concept that trees – nature – have the inherent right to exist was proposed by law professor Christopher Stone, USC, in his path-breaking 1972 article, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects, arguing that individuals or groups should be able to apply to the courts for legal guardianship and the right to litigate on nature’s behalf. Today, Cormac Cullinan, South African environmental lawyer, deeply affected by the writings of eco-theologian Thomas Berry and Indigenous people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, and Thomas Linzey, founder of Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, have advanced Stone’s work and PA, NH and ME communities have passed Rights of Nature ordinances so local ecosystems may exist and thrive. In 2008, Ecuador was the first country to codify traditional Indigenous wisdom that recognizes Mother Earth as a living being with which all people have an indivisible, interdependent, complementary, and spiritual relationship into a new system of environmental protection based on the rights of nature.

Short of a legal mandate, all parties should work together to create a revised Cannery site plan to retain the trees. We need to set an example to the community, especially to the young, that we recognize nature has an intrinsic right to exist, and that we, the present generation, will enact our responsibility as stewards of nature for future generations.

Ron O

Thanks for bringing up this issue, and for the questions asked in this article.

Wondering if the city is going to have any official response (e.g., from the council).

Janet Goldsmith

“...they make a desert and call it Breton Woods.”
With apologies to Tacitus, Agricola 30.4
(Original: peace)
I was an early supporter, but am disgusted by the wholesale destruction of a mature habitat that was enjoyed by numerous species AND people for years. Among the inhabitants I chronicled in the past three years: riparian bunny colony, flickers, bluebirds, yellow-breasted chats, morning doves, black phoebes, sparrows, robins, hawks, goldfinches, plovers, squirrels and ravens. Now: I once saw a lizard on one of the stumps. The developers should be ashamed of themselves.

Larry D. Guenther

It should have been clearly stated in the article that Dr. McPherson and I were speaking as individuals and were not speaking for Tree Davis, the Tree Davis board of directors, or the Tree Commission. We apologize for that omission and any misunderstandings it caused.

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