Peter Janopaul, a developer and board member of the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), had a bit of a shock on the morning of Feb. 12, when he saw state workers hacking away at trees in the median of Highway 163. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had announced it would be doing some replanting that day, but no tree-chopping had been mentioned in the announcement. Janopaul immediately called Bruce Coons, SOHO's executive director, who alerted the Balboa Park Committee and the offices of City Councilmember Toni Atkins and state Sen. Christine Kehoe.
The rumors began soon after: Caltrans had used the replanting as a ruse to cover up the removal of more than 350 trees; the trees were historical, planted by park founder Kate Sessions; the trees taken were on city and San Diego Zoo property. No doubt the villainous Saruman cackled as he oversaw state workers.
“I don't know why they think they can get away it,” Coons told CityBeat. “Every time this comes up, it's a huge uproar. People love that freeway.”
Coons was referring to Caltrans' 1999 attempt to clear the scenic route's median of all trees so workers could install cement barriers between the northbound and southbound lanes. The state had noticed an unusually high number of injury accidents along the stretch of 163 in the park, where people lost control of their cars and careened into trees along the curving highway. The move prompted an outcry among San Diegans. Led by Kehoe, then a City Council member, the protesters convinced Caltrans to install the wood-and-steel hybrid barriers that line the highway today, and to follow a management plan dictating when trees could be removed and where to put new trees.
What Janopaul saw last month exploded the uneasy peace between Caltrans and the community.
But in fact, Caltrans isn't the sap-thirsty tree killer it's cracked up to be. The agency removed only 15 trees that day, mostly young pines leaning dangerously over the roadway. Since 2001, Caltrans has indeed removed 350 trees, but it's also planted nearly 700. Marcello Peinado, Caltrans' deputy director for design, told CityBeat that these trees were removed either because of disease, bad root systems, cracked trunks from car crashes or they posed a danger to motorists. Atkins spoke at length to Peinado and was convinced the department was behaving appropriately in removing each of those 350 trees.
Still, Peinado admitted the department had erred. “We didn't communicate very well,” he said. “We will certainly do a better job in letting the public know what we're up to. This last incident, where we cut trees, was a wake-up call.”Kehoe said the department might have lost sight of its agreements, at least a bit.
“I think we had to refocus them a bit on the requirements of the Corridor Management Plan,” she said.
At her suggestion, Caltrans has hired an arborist to catalogue every tree in the right-of-way, noting each tree's age, size, type and possible historical value. The results should be available in two weeks. And instead of replanting the 10 trees in the median, Caltrans will be installing cables to reinforce or straighten them. Peinado also said that in May 2009 the department will begin a major planting—more than 3,850 new trees. Most of these will be tiny saplings, but it's a major Caltrans initiative.
Though the damage was limited this time, Kehoe and Atkins appreciated the vigilance of the community in protecting Balboa Park.
“You have a lot of great people monitoring these things,” Atkins said. “I think that's good for us.“