Trees Damaging Los Angeles Infrastructure, Who Is Responsible for Liability and Repairs?

In May and June of 2015, The Los Angeles Times published articles addressing the problem of crumbling sidewalk infrastructure within the City of Los Angeles. The articles focused on the challenges pedestrians face in this car-dominated city. After years of mounting complaints and lawsuits caused by defective, dangerous sidewalks, city officials are finally beginning to address the problems caused by trees that were planted within city parkways, medians and right of ways.

Roots have damaged the sidewalk creating a trip and fall hazard

Roots have damaged the sidewalk creating a trip and fall hazard

After decades of deferred maintenance, the City Council, the Mayor, and public work officials are finally turning their attention toward addressing the problem, and trying to figure out how to juggle spending requirements resulting from legal settlements and sort out who is responsible for future sidewalk maintenance, as well as liability for future injuries caused by damaged sidewalks.

The first question, who is responsible for sidewalk repair and replacement caused by trees growing within city parkways and right of ways? California state law placed the burden of sidewalk repairs on adjacent property owners. A majority of California cities adhere to the state policy, however not the City of Los Angeles, which forty years ago opted for a policy that made the City responsible for repairing sidewalks damaged by tree roots in city parkways. Back in the 1970’s, when federal funding was available for the work, Los Angeles opted to pay for tree-damaged sidewalks. When the federal funding was depleted, voters declined to support tax increases for the repair work, leading to the current massive backlog of damaged sidewalks.

Instead of removing invasive, surface rooting tree species and replacing damaged sidewalks, the city embarked on a less expensive program of temporary asphalt patches in an attempt to smooth over displaced, uneven sidewalks. The problems continue to mount, with over 19,000 sidewalk complaints within the past five years alone. Over 40% of the complaints have been ignored, with no repairs having been made, mainly due to inspections never being made or the sidewalks so severely damaged they require complete rebuilding.

The City is now proposing a policy to address the situation. Under the proposed policy, neighborhood sidewalks damaged by city parkway trees would be replaced at the city’s expense. However, after repairs are completed, responsibility for repair, maintenance and liability would be shifted upon the adjacent property owner.

The proposal has received mixed comments from residential and commercial property owners. Businesses already pay taxes they assume local government should be using for infrastructure repairs. Additionally, requiring businesses to pay for repairs would harm retailers, especially in districts lined with problematics trees. Many commercial property owners would be forced to pass on the expense to the small business owners that rent the property.

Ficus roots creating a sidewalk hazard

Ficus roots creating a sidewalk hazard

Under the “fix and release” program, repairs would be made by the city, and then future responsibility for the sidewalks transferred to the homeowner. Some homeowners feel this would be an equitable solution to the current problem, other disagree, stating they would be saddled with big bills down the road, particularly if the city does not fix the “root” cause of the problem, that being tree roots or leaking utilities.

The city must grapple with both sides of a delicate issue, trying to preserve the benefits of large, picturesque trees providing neighborhood character while having to remove the same trees whose invasive roots have damaged infrastructure and would continue to do so if left in place. To begin the process, the city acknowledged they do not really know how extensive the problem is. The city has no existing tree inventory of the tree and sidewalk condition. Without this information, it would be difficult for the city to measure progress as they attempt to implement any new sidewalk management policy.

Certified and registered consulting arborists consult with Southern California municipalities and private property owners involved in trip and fall litigation caused by tree root lifted and damaged sidewalks. Typically lifted and damaged sidewalks caused by tree roots are due to inappropriate tree selection. Species such as Sycamore, Ficus, Eucalyptus and Ash trees planted decades ago in restricted parkway planters were most often associated with damaged infrastructure.

Sidewalk repair or replacement without addressing the existing tree species ignores the problem. Passing on responsibility for future repairs and liability to adjacent property owners would be an unjust situation for taxpayers. Large, surface rooting, invasive species should be closely examined for mitigation in conjunction with infrastructure replacement. Perhaps root pruning and root barriers might be an appropriate remediation that would protect future infrastructure while retaining large pre-existing species.

However, many species planted decades ago were and will always be inappropriate for confined parkways. Root pruning a large Ficus or Sycamore could easily de-stabilize the tree, resulting in a catastrophic failure. Who would be liable for a tree failure and resultant property damage, or worse, personal injury or death? Citizens might have to accept they cannot have the best of both worlds, where large, invasive trees are retained for neighborhood character, sidewalks are repaired and the city remains responsible.

Over the decades, many newer street tree species have been developed that provide desirable growth characteristics while minimizing damaging invasive root systems and towering canopies that conflict with traffic and overhead utilities. Reasonable compromises can and should be made toward replacing older, inappropriate tree species with newer species that will provide community benefits while minimizing maintenance costs and damaged infrastructure.

Hopefully, the City of Los Angeles and other municipalities facing this problem elect to use certified and registered consulting arborist and horticulturists as they consider how to address their urban forest and infrastructure issues.

To read the full Los Angeles Times Article, click the link:

L.A. Considers Shifting Responsibility to Property Owners

 

What is an RCA?

When I tell people I’m a consulting arborist they often ask what is that? Everyone is familiar with tree care companies, but not so much what the role of a consulting arborist. The common conception is when there is a tree problem, call up a tree contractor and have them do the work.

Yet, there are many tree problems that require expertise beyond a tree care company. When a tree has a change in condition or conflicts with infrastructure, a consulting arborist is required to assess the situation and make recommendations.

Consulting arborists have one or more certifications.  The primary designation is a certified arborist.  This designation is administered through the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA).  The second and more difficult designation to obtain is that of Registered Consulting Arborist (RCA), administered through the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA). Consulting arborists with the RCA designation are the preeminent authorities on tree related matters.

To receive the RCA designation, an individual must already be a certified arborist.  Once they meet the experience and education requirements, an applicant must enroll in the Consulting Academy.  This rigorous training focuses on technical and report writing. Applicants who receive their RCA designation are trained to produce the highest quality written reports and work product, a terrific benefit for attorneys, insurers and professional consultants.

To learn more about registered consulting arborists, please click on the link below.

What is an RCA

A Better Way to Protect Trees and Pedestrians

Safe Path permeable product replaces cast iron tree grate

Safe Path permeable product replaces cast iron tree grate

Through a business acquaintance, I had the good fortune to meet with Mr. Christian Rodriguez, a company representative from Blue Drop, Inc.  We met at a downtown San Diego street intersection where Blue Drop, Inc. had a contract with the City of San Diego to replace old cast iron tree grates with their new product called Safe Path.

Tree planters within pedestrian sidewalks are typically small confined spaces surrounded by concrete with lots of pedestrian traffic.  Tree grates were installed around the planter pit primarily to protect people from tripping over tree roots.  The grate also allowed watering to occur beneath the grate and afforded the tree a degree of root protection from pedestrian traffic.

When first installed surrounding a young tree, there is plenty of room for the tree trunk and root collar to grow and expand.  Tree grate openings typically are up to 12″ in diameter.

Tree trunk lifts grate creating potential trip and fall hazard

Tree trunk lifts grate creating potential trip and fall hazard

A young tree with a two inch diameter trunk will add one inch of trunk diameter per year. The tree will outgrow the tree grate opening within a decade.  Just as the tree reaches maturity and is starting to provide the maximum intended benefits,  the trunk begins to lift the tree grate.  Either the tree or tree grate must be replaced.

When I met Mr. Rodriguez, he showed me a downtown site where Blue Drop had installed their new Safe Path product.  The product is a poured in place permeable rubberized material that levels the planter surface with the adjacent sidewalk.  Water quickly infiltrates the permeable product which allows for both water and gas exchange.  The tree trunk, root collar and any surface roots are safely protected by the product.  As the trunk and roots enlarge, the products cracks, allowing for easy product removal and mending.

Pedestrians safely travel over Safe Path tree system

Pedestrians safely travel over Safe Path tree system. Photo by Blue Drop

Because Safe Path is poured in place, it appears to be an ideal product to retrofit existing planter systems and especially for irregular shaped planter areas.  The product provides a smooth, yet permeable surface, creating a safe environment for pedestrians while protecting tree roots and enhancing street scene aesthetics

I have no financial of special interest in Blue Drop Inc or any of their products.  As a certified arborist who has provided expert witness testimony in trip and fall cases involving trees, I was interested in discovering new technologies that improve public safety around trees.

Click the link to read the full article reviewing the product. A Better Way to Protect Trees and Pedestrians

 

RDCS LLC Hired for City of San Diego North Torrey Pines Roadway and Median Enhancement Project

Rappoport Development Consulting Services LLC has been hired by the City of San Diego to provide certified arborist consulting services for the North Torrey Pines Road Median and Street Enhancement project.  Estrada Land Planning Inc., the project landscape architectural firm, has sub-contracted with RDCS LLC to implement tree protection plans, including tree monitoring, and best management practices.   Tree protection plans and best management practices (BMP’s), are designed to minimize construction impacts to the existing median and parkway street trees.

The project encompasses approximately 1.5 miles of construction work along North Torrey Pines Road, adjacent to the Torrey Pines Golf Course.  The scope includes street improvements (curb, gutter, guardrail, sidewalk, drainage) as well as landscape and irrigation within the medians and parkways. Palm Engineering is the General Contractor for the project.

Eucs in median

Eucalyptus line the median planter of N.Torrey Pines Rd.

Within the project boundaries, north and southbound traffic is separated by a median, varying in width from approximately 3 to 20-feet.  The current median landscape consists of moderate to large size Eucalyptus trees with no other understory planting.  Previously, RDCS LLC was hired as a certified arborist sub-consultant by Estrada Land Planning to develop a tree inventory for a sensitive portion of the project.

The inventory included tree health and when needed, tree risk assessment to determine if certain tree defects created hazardous safety conditions warranting removal.

Trunk cavity in Eucalyptus

Trunk cavity in Eucalyptus

The trees inventoried were primarily Eucalyptus cladocalyx, commonly known as the sugar gum.  Smaller caliper trees ranged in age from 20 to 30 years old, while larger trees possibly up to 100 years old. The existing Eucalyptus median trees have grown and acclimated to the site conditions, under non-irrigated conditions.  Preparing the trees to survive through the construction process is extremely important.  The three parts of the tree requiring protection include the tree crown, tree trunk and tree roots.

 

Jeremy Rappoport, President of RDCS stated,

Aerial crown pruning to clean out deadwood

Aerial crown pruning to clean out deadwood

“We knew we would encounter tree roots throughout the median, our goal was to minimize root conflicts and environmental stresses to the trees.”  Therefore, tree protection best management practices included aerial canopy pruning to remove deadwood from each tree crown, installing construction fencing to protect tree trunks and hand trenching and root pruning to minimize roots conflicting with street improvements.

The concept of root pruning is to trench and locate conflicting roots and hand cut them rather than having a piece of grading equipment ripe or tear the root out of the ground.  Hand trenching and root pruning reduces the shock and destruction of small absorbing root hairs caused when heavy equipment rips, tears or cuts roots.   Properly implemented, root pruning is an effective arboricultural technique to reduce construction impacts to tree root systems.

Best management practices also include reducing soil compaction by minimizing construction traffic and not allowing staging or parking equipment underneath tree canopies.  Although the site is not irrigated, recommendations for weekly construction watering were implemented to help the trees cope with the stresses caused by the construction work.

RDCS will provide consulting services whenever construction work endangers the existing trees.    Rappoport stated “We were told to be on call for monitoring services during certain phases of the street improvements and trenching.  We have completed the first phase of canopy pruning and expect to provide root pruning on certain trees in the near future”.

Rappoport Development Consulting Services LLC provides certified arborist consulting services for infrastructure projects.   Certified arborist-consulting services include tree inventories, tree monitoring, tree construction protection plans and best management practices, tree risk assessment, tree health assessment, tree and landscape appraisal services.  Mr. Rappoport is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist and certified tree risk assessor, a C-27 California Landscape Contractor and a professional horticulturist.  For decades, Mr. Rappoport worked for public and private master sub-division builders as a landscape and grading superintendent, manager and director of land development.  More information is available at http://landscapeexpertwitness.com/.

Click to see aerial pruning here Euc Pruning

Let it Burn or Suppress It? US Park Service vs Cal Fire Policy

This past summer brought us the gigantic Rim fire that devastated Yosemite National Park and surrounding communities. Over 4,900 firefighters operated under a unified command, however when the fire crossed over into the boundary between state and national park land, the National Park Service took a very different approach than Cal Fires (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection). Continue reading “Let it Burn or Suppress It? US Park Service vs Cal Fire Policy” »

At Yosemite, Infrastructure Out to Benefit Giant Sequoia’s!

Read an article in the Los Angeles Times concerning upcoming changes at Yosemite National Park. There is a proposal to remove public parking, a gift shop and tram operations in an effort to minimize impacts to the Mariposa Grove, a grove of approximately 500 Giant Sequoia trees (Sequoia giganteum).

The Park service recognizes paved surfaces and infrastructure are “compacting the soil, encroaching on sequoia roots and interfering with natural drainage patterns”. Tram service will be limited to the south entry of the park and shuttle buses would take people tot he entrance of the lower grove, where the largest and oldest trees are located. Access to the upper grove would be by foot only. Approximately four acres of paved surfaces would be removed from the grove. A final decision on the proposal will be made by end of the year.

Measured by mass, the giant sequoia is the worlds largest living organism. Californian’s are fortunate to have bragging rights to hosting these ageless giants living on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. They exist in scattered groves typically on federal land.

My dad took me to Sequoia National Park when I was just a young kid, I still vividly remember the awe I felt looking at the General Sherman tree. If you haven’t seen a giant sequoia, you owe yourself and family a trip to Yosemite or Sequoia National Park to see these living legends. Their sheer mass and regal beauty is indescribable. I think this is great news for the future survival of the sequoia grove, which we almost lost due to the recent mammoth fire at Yosemite.

When trees conflicts with infrastructure, tree usually loose out.  It is an encouraging turn of events when trees are recognized more valuable than a parking lot and gift store, hopefully this trend will continue.

Read the article at Redwood Grove Saved

Can a Tree Capture Particulate Matter from the Air?

For years, certified arborists and urban foresters have learned the many benefits of trees. Energy savings are one of the foremost known benefits of trees as they shade building during the summer reducing the need for air conditioning and deciduous tress allow sunlight to reach structures during winter months, solar radiation decreasing the need for winter heating.

Another known benefit for trees are their ability to reduce storm water runoff and erosion, particularly during the winter months. Tree root systems bind soil particles and slow storm runoff from roofs and other impervious surfaces, trees act as bio filters, slowing storm and irrigation water runoff and allowing the water time to slowly percolate into the soil profile rather than run off into the street or storm drain system.  By forcing water to pass through the soil profile, rather than runoff into storm drain systems, the soil mass filters impurities before the water enters into streams, ponds and aquifers.

Birch Tree planting works as filter

A Birch street tree planting used for testing as a green filter to remove particulate matter from the air we breath

Continue reading “Can a Tree Capture Particulate Matter from the Air?” »

Trees and Solar Power – Environmental Conflict or Can the Two Co-Exist?

I attended a recent seminar in San Diego entitled Trees and Solar Power:  Natural Partners, sponsored by the California Urban Forest Council (CAUFC).  It was a very informative seminar, bringing together professionals from the solar and tree industries, as well as city planners, landscape architects, arborists and related professionals.

Even with decades experience as a landscape contractor, certified arborist, professional horticulturist and land development infrastructure project manager, I was not aware of the current solar and arboriculture laws.  For example, the State of California and many other states enacted solar legislation decades ago.  Due to the oil crisis in the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was increased interest in promoting alternative energy sources.  Many states adopted laws to encourage renewable energy technologies, solar being one of them.

In 1978, California enacted the Solar Shade Control Act, in part to protect consumer rights to install and operate solar energy systems on a home or business and to protect consumer rights to access sunlight.  In 2008, the law was amended due to a very public controversy between two Santa Clara County residents being criminally prosecuted and convicted under the Act for allowing their redwood trees to cast shade on a neighbors solar panels.

Based on the Solar Shade Act of 2008, a site plan reflecting the pre-existing conditions at the time a solar system is installed should be a mandatory permit and legal requirement.  As lawsuits increase due to conflicts between trees shading solar collectors, a site plan showing trees in place pre-existing a solar installation will become an important legal instrument.

We derive many benefits from large trees, from their beauty and aesthetics to the shade and passive cooling affect they have on our homes and businesses.  The same is true for deciduous trees in the winter when they drop their leaves, permitting solar radiation to warm our homes.  In a residential setting, large existing trees will invariably cast shading onto a structure.  It is incumbent upon a solar company to analyze shading from the Client and neighboring trees for correct solar panel design and installation.

If a solar company identifies trees as a potential shading  conflict with a rooftop solar installation, a certified arborist and or professional horticulturist should be added to the design team.  Depending on the tree species, growth form, and distance from the structure, there may be several alternatives available to mitigate tree shading without complete tree removal or butchering the tree through indiscriminate topping.

Have a certified arborist or professional horticulturist consult with the solar company to ensure retention of the desired landscape aesthetics combined with the energy savings benefits of rooftop solar.

Read the full article at Trees and Solar-Environmental Conflict or Can the Two Co-Exist?

PTCA Arbor Essence

No, this is not a perfume, rather it is the title for this years PTCA Seminar and Field Day.  PTCA, known as the Professional Tree Care Association of San Diego, is a premier industry association for professionals within the tree care industry.  The association contains a wide diversity of professionals, including representatives from outstanding tree care and tree service companies, ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) certified arborists, utility arborists, board certified master arborist, ASCA (American Association of Consulting Arborists) RSA’s (Registered Consulting Arborist), and industry professionals from utility companies, San Diego Zoo, golf courses, private industries, landscape contractors, landscape architects, educators and more.

A common thread shared by all of these different professionals and educators is our love of TREES and desire to further improve our understanding of the field of arboriculture!  It is a comforting feeling sitting is a room with hundreds of people sharing our knowledge and experiences with trees, learning new information, meeting old and making new friends.

Each year, the PTCA sponsors the annual Seminar and Field Day.  The first day (today) featured an incredible diversity of speakers and topics, there is something for everyone.  Here is a sampling of todays speakers:

Ms. Leah Rottke, professor at Cuyamaca College spoke about what to plant now for upcoming changes brought about by climate change in Southern California, Ms. Pat Nolan, County Pathologist for San Diego County of Department of Agriculture spoke about invasive diseases  moving into the Urban Forest.  In the morning session, Dr. Tom Scott, Ph.D., Department of Earth Sciences, UC Riverside discussed Management of Oak trees in San Diego County followed by an afternoon discussion about the Gold Spotted Oak Borer research (GSOB) and update.  Mr. Ron Matranga, Board Certified Master Arborist from Atlas Tree Service provided an overview of the ISA Traq (Tree Risk Assessment Qualified) program and Mr.Randall Stamen, Esq., from Riverside, California delivered a sobering lecture about Arboriculture and the law, including tree risk assessment and case studies.  Mr. Brian Bishop of Bishops Tree Service discussed improving the efficiency of tree crews and Dr. John Kabashima, Ph.D., UC County Extension, Orange County gave an entertaining lecture about effective sampling for diagnoses of insect and disease problems.  All of that in ONE day!

Really looking forward to tomorrow, the field day featuring workshops in tree risk assessment and BMP (best management practices), insects and diseases of shade tree diagnoses, pesticide applications for tree demonstrations, safety and tree identification, electrical safety, wood weight calculations, improving efficiency and maximizing safety.  There will be a tree climbing workshop provided in Spanish and English.

If you are a tree, landscape, horticulture, educator, consultant, or expert witness and have not yet attended a PTCA field day, you are missing out on a premier educational and entertaining event.  Members of the ISA, ASCA and urban forest councils, city and jurisdictional representatives, recreational and utility companies all come together in a common bond of learning, teaching and sharing, not to mention fantastic networking opportunities.  Hope to see you at the next PTCA Seminar and Field Day!

Learn more about the PTCA at http://www.ptcasandiego.org

Unsure of What Plants to Select for Your Landscape or Garden?

The Basics on Landscape Design, Tree and Shrub Selection for Southern California Landscapes

 
I am most definitely a native SoCal.  Born in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, educated at UC Santa Barbara and California Polytechnic University, living in San Diego for many decades, I have lived in Southern California my entire life.
 
Yes, we complain when we have hot spells, (last summer was ridiculous), Santa Ana winds, and the fog, but overall, we have the best climate in the world for growing plants.  Whether for ornamental landscapes or vegetable gardening, we a blessed with a climate and environmental conditions that allow us to grow an incredible variety of trees, shrubs, ground covers, turf, vegetables and fruits pretty much 365 days a year.
 
Walk or drive throughout our neighborhoods and check out the incredible plant diversity.  We are very accustomed to the trees and plants that surround us.  However, if you are from the midwest, east coast or other parts of the country or the world, you are most likely amazed at the variety of plant material.  Botanical gardens and arboretums from Santa Barbara to San Diego boast incredible displays of plants from around the world that flourish in our mild Mediterranean climate.
 
We have neighbors recently moved to San Diego from Kansas City.  They purchased a home and want to landscape but are completely baffled about what to plant.  Obviously, the trees and shrubs they were accustomed to in Kansas City were very different from what is available for landscaping in San Diego.  I offered some suggestions to help simplify the plant selection process.
 
There are many approaches one can take to designing and installing an ornamental landscape for their home or place of business.  Using a landscape architect to design a planting and irrigation plan is an excellent choice, however it can be costly.  Landscape contractors can provide design services as part of a design build contract, however you might feel uncomfortable about possible conflict of interest, and whether the contractor is truly knowledgeable about plant material and design.  Then, there are the millions of property owners trying to do it themselves.  This article is for you!

Where to Start?

Don’t get caught up with or distracted by endless design themes and details.  If you have a certain theme in mind, fine, then you most likely already know the kinds of plant material you want to use.  I prefer to design and select plant based on the site environmental conditions matched to the cultural requirements of each plant to be used in the landscape.  What does that mean?

What are Environmental Site Conditions?

The first step in selecting plant material is determining your specific site conditions.  There are many factors that affect plant growth and they are reflected in your site.  Analyze your location and be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Does the site face the north (full shade), east (part shade part sun), west (part sun – full sun), or south, (full sun).  Determining the site sun exposure is one of the most important environmental conditions.
  2. What are the temperature extremes.  Does the site receive cold weather extremes such as frequent frosts, freezes, snow or hail?  Does the site receive intense heat?  Determine the temperature extremes as well as the average seasonal temperature for your location.
  3. Is the site near the coast where it will receive constant salt air and sea breezes?
  4. Is the site windy, contain microclimates, protected by a structure?
  5. Is the soil a heavy, poorly drained clay or lighter, well drained loam, or sand?
  6. Is the soil structure friable and fertile or dry and compacted?
  7. Does the site drain well or is water trapped onsite or on top of a perched water table or spring?
  8. Are there rodent or pest or disease problems?
  9. Are there physical site constraints such as overhead or underground utilities, concrete or masonry improvement?

 
These are just a sampling of typical environmental site conditions that affect plant growth.  The more you know about the site to be landscaped, the better informed you will be in order to make appropriate plant selections.
 
In the next installment, I’ll discuss plant cultural requirements and the importance of selecting plant material with cultural requirements that match the site environmental conditions, a key to successful landscape project!