It was a perfectly healthy tree in Clairemont

Mature jacaranda chopped down in error

Not a pepper tree, and no longer alive after 20 years on Mount Frissell Drive
  • Not a pepper tree, and no longer alive after 20 years on Mount Frissell Drive

Henrietta Valens (not her real name) left Clairemont for Vegas with friends on June 28. On June 30 at 8:46 a.m., her 90-year-old mother called to tell her that some guys were getting ready to cut down the tree in front of her house on the 4900 block of Mount Frissell Drive.

Valens said she talked to Colton from Robin Hilton Professional Land & Tree Maintenance.

“I told him not to remove it and that there must be some kind of mistake. When I told him that there were no signs put out to warn anyone, Colton told me that their signs were stolen from a job in Pacific Beach. He also said that if they don’t do the job, they don’t get paid. That seemed more important to him than anything else.”

Valens then called Robin Hilton, the owner of the tree service company.

“Robin Hilton just said that she had a picture of the tree and an order from the city and the tree had to go. She also told me that she put the signs out herself.”

Valens's tree was subsequently cut down.

“I was really upset. I know it’s the city’s strip, but I picked out that tree myself and we were its steward for 20 years. I knew it was a mistake because a city-hired arborist told me in April that my tree was healthy and not going anywhere after the city did some work on the sidewalk.”

On July 6, Valens finally got to the bottom of what happened when she talked to Sergio Arias, head arborist for the city.

Oops. The pepper tree still stands.

Oops. The pepper tree still stands.

“I could hear him on the computer and he said, 'Oh, they made a mistake. They were supposed to take out the pepper tree two doors down.'

“I think the city and DuWright Construction [Robin Hilton was their subcontractor] handled this nicely, they accepted blame and promised to replace the tree. The only person I’m irritated with is Robin Hilton. If she would have just said that she would check into it and get back to me instead of just blowing me off, this whole thing could have been avoided. Mistakes happen; it’s how you handle them that matters. And I don’t think they handled it well from the start.”

Year-old jacaranda

Year-old jacaranda

On July 11, a yearling jacaranda was planted to replace the tree cut down by mistake. As Valens watched the city contractors plant it, she reminisced back to 1996 when the prior jacaranda was planted.

“Councilmember Valerie Stallings had a pet tree project where trees were planted throughout Clairemont,” said Valens. “It was a huge undertaking. I remember when the truck came down our street, it was filled with all different types of trees. They had a section of six or seven jacarandas for me to pick from. I had picked the jacaranda because, on Mount Everest [Boulevard], the street was lined with them. When they bloom, they’re so beautiful. It’s a neighborhood type of tree.”

On July 13, Bill Harris from the city’s Street Division explained the city’s side. He said this type of error is rare. He said the city’s contractor, DuWright Construction, was replacing part of the sidewalk on Mount Frissell, which included root pruning, barrier installation, and tree trimming of the jacaranda in front of Valens’s home.

“It was at this time that the subcontractor [Robin Hilton] working with DuWright misidentified the location of the work site. They determined that the tree they encountered would need to be completely removed in order to complete the sidewalk work.”

The same sidewalk work that Valens pointed out was completed in April 2016.

“Both DuWright and its subcontractor have been informed by the city that this type of error is unacceptable and DuWright has both apologized and immediately replaced the tree mistakenly removed,” Harris said.

As far as the signage, Harris said that all stakeholders within a 300-foot radius are required to be notified at least five days in advance. No Parking signs are also required at least 48 hours in advance. Harris said that it’s common practice to notify the resident who is at the location of the tree on the public strip via mail. Since Valens's tree was removed by accident, she wouldn’t have received any notice, Harris said.

Did they ever cut down the pepper tree? “No, it’s still there,” said Valens on July 13. “When the guys were here to put in the new tree, they asked my neighbor if he still wanted his tree removed. He told them yes. He’s still waiting for them to do it.”

Robin Hilton did get back to me via email to say she would call me on July 14, but as of publication, she has not.

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It might have been the right thing for the wrong reason.

The tree was obviously not properly maintained during most of its life; it was leaning and bending, apparently due to indifference or ignorance of proper tree maintenance principles. It may have been chopped off (improper practice) by the power company because of the supply cable extending from the power pole across the street to the house at 4982 Mt. Frissell Drive. Additionally, root pruning weakens the tree's anchoring roots.

There are not many places in the Clairemont Mesa area that are suitable for the planting of trees that can grow large enough to kill people when they fall. Many soils are stratified with "hardpan" near enough to the surface to prevent the development of a healthy anchoring root system. The rupture of sidewalks is an indicator that the roots are not developing deeply enough. This is most commonly caused by two management errors--failing to make sure that the soil is deep enough for the proper development of a strong anchoring root system, and failing to insure that the tree's root system is watered deeply enough for such a system to develop. I suspect that it had all these factors against it.

The new tree could develop similar problems. The City, not the homeowner, should first make a determination that the soil depth is adequate for the development of a strong support system. If the City is going to require that the adjacent homeowner is responsible for properly pruning as well as irrigating and fertilizing, they should provide exact instructions. Unfortunately, many so-called professionals know little more than inherited folklore about trees, much of it not only wrong, but potentially (if not certainly) dangerous.

Trees are wonderful forms of life, but humans seem to believe that they somehow miraculously can take care of themselves despite the abuse they suffer at the hands of humans.

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