Developer’s Rash Tree-Felling Highlights Hazards for Riders (Editorial)

Courier cover November 27th 2015The Beverly Hills Courier, the perennial champion of anti-Metro hyperbole, has rotated its turret toward toxic contamination on Santa Monica Boulevard parcels 12 & 13. Riders know this land for the chain-link fencing and dense tree cover that casts in deep shadow pavement hazards east of Beverly. Well the shadow is no more: the landowner clear-cut the trees on a Saturday morning. But were the required permits secured? Did the city fail to ensure that soil contamination wasn’t disturbed? The incident raises questions not only about City Hall transparency but rider safety on the corridor too.

The Courier has been all over City Hall like a cheap suit since it broke this story in late November: landowner and developer Lyn Konheim felled 196 trees on two parcels without a necessary Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) permit. It’s not the trees per se; the issue goes beyond arbor ardor to instead implicate some violation of the state’s toxic substance control regulations. You see, the land is contaminated with arsenic and major work would disturb the soil. So, is clear-cutting significant enough to warrant a DTSC permit, or does it fall under that threshold as the tree-cutter claims?

Complicating the issue is that a deputy city manager for Beverly Hills apparently sent the landowner a letter, the Courier reports, in which he asked about clearing the site of trees for boulevard construction purposes. And it seems that when the landowner talked with the city about clearing that land, the city didn’t raise an objection – despite the contamination and the required mitigation measures not being in place. (The work was done in short order on a Saturday morning using a regular city contractor.)

DTSC was brought into the discussion but says it understood that the trees would not be removed but merely trimmed; the landowner says they weren’t removed but only reduced to a stump. The city says that in any case it was the landowners responsibility to get it right with DTSC.

(Finger-pointing all around. Notably the city’s webpage set up after the flare-up shares none of the information that could shed light on how the three parties communicated.)

Local residents don’t see it that way. The City knew full well that the parcels are under the control of DTSC yet it allowed the work to proceed, they say. But as often happens in a crisis, Beverly Hills City Hall communicates in measured statements and careful phrasing as the community seethes. As the Courier put it, “The city is closing ranks.”

Perhaps because the Courier has rapped City Hall every week since its story first appeared. In front-page articles, supplemental sidebars and even a handy ‘toxic timeline’ the paper drove home a question central to any decent conspiracy: What did City Hall know, and when did it know it? It’s the kind of muckraking reportage that rarely surfaces in either of our two weekly papers (except perhaps for the Courier publisher’s favored causes, like Bel Aire over-building or BH foot-dragging on the long-awaited dog park).

To its credit, the Courier’s reportage has kindled a latent dietrologia in Beverly Hills that has managed to organize disparate individual gripes into some kind of dyspeptic community chorus. It’s the vox populi calling for policymakers to be put in the stocks.

We are on board with that! Beverly Hills needs some focused public opprobrium. Rare is the policy change that excites the senses (much less garners public scorn or even earns a wagging finger in our local papers). And it’s worse in the land use arena, where plan-busting projects that stink of some kind of ex-parte arrangement rarely elicit political blowback. And that’s just how the establishment likes it.

In fact every two weeks developers and their lobbyists prostrate themselves before the Planning Commission so that commissioners may bless a height greater than what’s allowed by the code; or to approve setbacks smaller than are required; or to permit new uses for longer hours that would seem to stretch to a breaking point any existing conditional use permit. That’s money in the bank!

In fact, so often do our deciders simply rubber-stamp deviations from the General Plan that Councilmember John Mirisch once memorably asked our principal planner during a City Council session: “Is staff a victim of Stockholm syndrome?” We think that a wonderful analogy: the division charged with regulating development instead allies with its captor, the developers, on their mission to reduce to mediocrity our commercial corridors and residential neighborhoods.

This tree-felling imbroglio, however, has struck a chord with the always-vocal north-side homeowners and the condo-dwellers immediately adjacent to these parcels. They’ve lashed out on the Courier’s letters page against all manner of City Hall sleights. We gladly joined-in with our own laundry list of gripes in a letter published December 11th (from which we’ll excerpt very briefly):

Communication is a two-way street, of course, and we-the-people have to make an effort to keep ourselves informed. But when City Hall makes it such a challenge to participate, the inevitable outcome is declining attendance at city meetings; depressed turnout at the polls; and most dangerous, less attention to the people’s business from outside City Hall.

This poses a threat to City Hall legitimacy over the longer term…. Should popular perception shift from everyday questions about City Hall competence to concerns about policymaker integrity, it will be a long climb back to gain the people’s trust. Or has it already slipped away?


 Abdicating the Pubic Trust on Safe Streets

From our perspective, trust in city government has eroded most significantly when it comes to City Hall’s responsibility to keep everyone safe on the road. Indeed our policymakers seem simply unconcerned with riders’ safety. And that’s where parcels 12 and 13 catch our attention.

Landowner Lyn Konheim claimed some concern that the trees in question were structurally deficient, and that imminent injury might occur were a tree branch to fall. And that did in fact occur. So the trees were felled. From Konheim’s letter to the Courier (12/4/15):

Recently, a car traveling eastbound on Santa Monica was hit by a falling tree. Fortunately, the driver was not injured. After that occurred, we hired an arborist who evaluated the trees and concluded that the majority of them needed to come down for safety reasons.

That’s fine for a landowner in a pickle to retroactively rationalize the felling of 196 trees for one fallen tree branch. But where has City Hall been when it comes to evaluating the dangers to riders and motorists from falling trees on Santa Monica Boulevard?

The imminent structural failure of the many trees overhanging that boulevard – which actually stand in the city’s right-of-way just behind the fence, not incidentally – should have triggered alarms for city officials. Where were they? It had to take an errant falling branch to spur action?

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards
Storm drains like this one reflect the dangers of riding Santa Monica Boulevard. Here it is heavily shaded with detail teased out in Photoshop.

This only underscores for us the hazards that we riders face every day on Santa Monica Boulevard. From tire-catching grates and potholes to pavement heaves that wouldn’t look out of place on a ski slope, treacherous conditions make the eastern segment a particularly dangerous ride for those on a bicycle.

Worse, such hazards were long shaded by the heavy tree cover, which definitely obstructed rider visibility. Where the pavement is actually most hazardous, speeding traffic and riders are forced together as the roadway narrows.

Santa Monica Boulevard hazards
Pavement heaves and moguls are obscured by shadow and sometimes camouflaged by debris. The city never sweeps this segment of Santa Monica Boulevard!

None of this has elicited any concern from City Hall or the transportation officials who bear responsibility to maintain streets in a safe condition. Neither Community Development Department director Susan Healy Keene nor Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation, has ever taken any action to address our stated concerns about boulevard conditions.

Until, of course, a tree branch fell on a motorist’s vehicle. That limb might have injured or killed a bicycle rider. But whatever. Like street safety generally, City Hall prefers to deal with liability later rather than take a proactive measure sooner in order to reduce the potential harm.

Here’s the thing: if it had been a rider who was killed or injured, City Hall might not be in a pickle at all. Those trees would still be standing. And the Courier would be as reticent as ever to bring up street safety as a problem. And no community posse would be marauding with torches calling for officials’ heads. After all it was only a bicycle rider. Her injury or death simply wouldn’t be worthy of much comment at all.

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