Claremont Insider: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Friday, June 29, 2007

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Claremont has a well-deserved reputation as the "City of Trees and Ph.D's." The Claremont Village really is defined by its tree-lined streets, which give the town the New England feel the town founders sought.

But with trees come hidden costs. There's the cost of maintenance: trimming, watering, pest management; and then there's the cost of the damage done by trees to property, and in some cases lives. We tend to forget that in February, 1998, two students were killed when a eucalyptus tree fell on their SUV at 4th St. and College Ave. The families of the two students settled a lawsuit against Pomona College for $1.6 million, as this March, 2000, article from The Student Life reported.

The article points out that even though the tree was on campus property and was owned by Pomona College, a city of Claremont crew showed up and quickly removed the tree and root ball, which the families considered evidence in their suit. No one could say who called the city in. Another "Town and Gown" cooperative event.

The city of Claremont has its own tree problems, as the FC Blog noted yesterday. The types of trees we have planted in the past can cause homeowners a great deal of damage to sewer and water lines, driveways and walks. Claremont regularly denies claims made by homeowners against the city for those damages, even though the city severely restricts the homeowners' ability to trim city trees and their roots. These damages are often not covered by homeowner insurance, so citizens are stuck with the costs of repairing the damaged lines.

To make matters worse, the city's Landscaping and Lighting District assessment creates the impression that the city has funds dedicated to things like tree maintenance. So, folks naturally get upset when the city tells them they're liable for any damages caused by city tree roots.

And those property damage costs are on the rise, according to an article by Will Bigham in yesterday's Daily Bulletin. The article reported the city estimates that the $230,000 per year it pays to maintain trees now will rise to $625,000 in 10 years as our tree population ages. Since 2005 there have been 202 tree-related claims against the city, and the city ended up paying out $220,000 because of tree damage in 2005 and 2006.

The article also noted that a city staff report placed part of the blame for current tree problems on past City decisions:

"The city is now experiencing the effects of past aggressive planting programs," the city staff report states. "In the past, trees were planted ... at 40-foot intervals. "Although this provided an equally dispersed tree population, no thought was given to the impact that a tree's growth would have on surrounding infrastructure. "The city is now seeing the financial implications of these decisions in the number of tree-related claims submitted," the report said.

Once again, our past, short-sighted decisions have large financial costs in the present, and the people who made those decisions (like two-term Community Services Commission member Sam Pedroza) have moved on and take no responsibility for those costs.

The new tree policy discussed at last Tuesday night's City Council meeting is at least a step towards reining in the costs of damage claims by engaging in preventative actions. Part of the policy includes hiring full-time arborist to manage the city's "urban forest" of 23,000 trees. Another is to plant types of trees that don't cause the damage that the we're now seeing.

The lesson of all of this is a simple one: pay now or pay a lot more later. It's well and good to have a plant a lot of trees, but if it's done without thinking out all of the consequences, there's hell to pay in the future. It's a lesson revisited time and again on Claremont.

Hats off to our current staff. At least they seem willing to try a different, more sensible path.