Council Asks Staff for Ordinance Requiring Tree Replacement When One Is Lost to Development

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At last week’s meeting, the Santa Monica City Council voted to ask city staff to prepare an ordinance that would require the replacement of trees that are lost on private property as a result of new development. Mayor Phil Brock, who introduced the motion, is hoping that the ordinance could require multiple trees for any that are lost.

“If we remove a mature tree, it’s going to take 2-3 trees to make up for the loss in tree canopy, in carbon, in all the other things that trees help us with,” Brock explained.

Santa Monica would follow the City of West Hollywood which recently passed its own ordinance and Culver City who is expected to vote on and pass a similar ordinance soon.

The West Hollywood ordinance differs from the one Brock envisions in two ways. First, the West Hollywood motion does not require the planting of multiple trees to replace one that is lost. All it requires is that the replacement tree be able to grow into a tree that brings the same amount of benefits as the one that was lost.

The second is that Brock is clearly pushing for more trees and even went so far as to say, “I’m not sure I care where the trees are planted, I just want trees to be planted.” The West Hollywood motion doesn’t discuss trees being planted away from the property that is being redeveloped or seeing other forms of construction. It actually goes into a short discussion of what other types of plantings could be used if the city determines it is not possible to replace the lost tree on site.

Screenshot from the West Hollywood Ordinance regarding landscape changes passed in December 2023.

Councilmember Jesse Zwick tried to also require staff to look at language that would allow for the widening of sidewalks to allow for more tree plantings. After Brock referenced Lincoln Boulevard as a corridor desperately in need of more shade, Zwick pointed out that in many places the sidewalk is too narrow to add trees. Brock responded by hoping that large developers would just build smaller buildings to create that space.

Brock rejected any potential friendly amendment to include the sidewalk widenings, and the Council voted unanimously to have staff prepare a motion that could lead to a tree replacement ordinance.

The focus on trees makes good sense. Trees are an important part of healthy and resilient cities because of many ways they help the environment. For example, trees help clean the air by reducing carbon, reduce flooding by absorbing more water in their loots, reduce the “heat island effect” by providing shade and blocking solar heat from reaching sidewalks, create quieter neighborhoods, and of course providing food in some cases. There have also been numerous studies that show that trees can improve the mental health of a community just by existing.

By rejecting Zwick’s call for including sidewalk widening options as well, Brock hamstrung one of the other benefits of increased urban forests; it creates more pleasant places to walk for transportation, leisure or health issues. Speaking for myself, as someone who spends hours on-foot in Santa Monica, I often find myself planning my route based on where there will be shade. Especially at this time of year and into the summer.

Of course, more shade could also be created by taller buildings, something that Brock is clearly not in favor of seeing more of.

Nevertheless, the motion was approved unanimously and now the city staff is tasked with taking this idea and turning it into a law that the Council could pass and put on the books.

“I think it’s a good start to protect and nurture our urban forest,” testified Jerry Peace Activist Rubin earlier in the evening. “I hope we continue to move to protect trees on private property, in a fair way, too.”

Following Rubin’s testimony, Brock added language to his request for the city to also examine adding language that would allow and guide property owners that would lose a tree to possibly move the tree to another location; something that Rubin called out as another good step forward.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.

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