Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process | Page 2
This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in association with Edhat.
By Tyler Hayden of The Independent
“Shocked.” “Frustrated.” “Very uncomfortable.” “Just really, really annoyed.” These were the sentiments the Santa Barbara City Council expressed on Tuesday evening when they gritted their teeth to vote down a petition by a Lomita Road homeowner to remove a large Deodar cedar tree from their front yard.
However, the council’s problem was not that of the homeowner or her request. Marilyn Goldman had followed the application process all the way to a T and had given a convincing explanation of why the tree should go. Instead, their violent disapproval lay with an appointed member of the city’s Street Tree Advisory Committee, who worked behind the scenes to save the cedar and conspired and allegedly broke government laws.
“Dishonest.” “Unfair.” “Arrogant.” This is how the council members described the behavior of Bob Cunningham, who has since resigned from the committee and has sparked an investigation by the Commission on Fair Political Practices.
Goldman, who suffers from painful spinal stenosis and reduced mobility, filed her application on Aug. 3, arguing that the 70-year-old tree and its tuber roots made it difficult to access her driveway and sidewalk. Goldman said she hated removing the healthy tree since she has lived in the house for 35 years and has always looked after it well, but she was now concerned about tripping over the uneven ground. She offered to plant another tree in his place.
The Street Tree Advisory Committee (STAC) voted 5-0 against Goldman’s petition, countering that she could improve the accessibility of her front yard without sacrificing one of the best examples in the neighborhood. The committee’s recommendation then went to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which was bogged down at 3-3. After 60 days, according to city rules, if there was a tie, permission to remove the cedar was granted by default. Over two dozen of Goldman’s neighbors citing health concerns had written the commission in support.
At that point, Cunningham, a landscape architect who had worked for STAC for 14 years and currently sits on the city’s Architectural Board of Review, had made it his business to appeal an apparent conflict of interest and violation of the Commission’s approval of the Code of Ethics the government. Cunningham privately emailed the other STAC members of his intention, secretly entered into a strategy with city officials, and even started a rally to help him pay the $ 300 fee. Unrelated tree-removal appeals were also discussed.
No one in the email chains spoke up, including Nathan Slack, the city’s municipal forest ranger. As if that look wasn’t bad enough, Cunningham also waved Goldman’s petition as “an old lady’s health problem” and suggested that her request was simply a matter of “convenience”.
In her comments on Tuesday, Goldman – a grief counselor at Santa Barbara Hospice and clinical director of the rape crisis center – confronted Cunningham. “I am disappointed that the city is appointing citizen advisers who openly dismiss and ridicule fellow citizens by combining accessibility, a civil right, with convenience,” she said. “This is a personal safety issue.” Goldman was furious at the “old lady’s” comment. “That’s a lot of -isms – alterism, ability awareness, sexism – in one sentence.”
Goldman also blasted the process by which the appeal reached the city council, wondering how its members could even consider it if the road to get there was so inadequate. “How can homeowners be expected to obey city rules and regulations if members of the committees that homeowners appear before do not?” she asked before turning her attention to Slack. “Why are city employees allowed to behave dishonestly and completely transparently?”
Cunningham tried to defend his comments. “I understand how Ms. Goldman was offended by what I said, but I didn’t mean offensive,” he began. “I am 75 years old. I have a lot of old friends, a lot of friends who are old, and a lot of friends who are old ladies. My best friend is an old lady and we have been married for 34 years. “However, Cunningham also redoubled his insistence that Goldman only think about her own comfort. “Essentially, Ms. Goldman’s request is based entirely on convenience, regardless of the benefits the tree brings to the neighborhood and the larger urban forest.”
Cunningham admitted that his business behind the door was inappropriate. “I made total mistakes and, on the Fair Political Practice Commission, I may pay a fine that I am sure I will be sorry about,” he said. “But I am not sorry to pursue this appeal further, because I believe that it is justified and I do not want to drop it.” When he fell on his sword, he made one final comment about Goldman and her health. “Removing the tree won’t make her pain go away,” he said.
Councilor Michael Jordan was reluctant to make the statement. “Maybe not,” he said, “but it would potentially allow a 66-year-old woman to live independently in her home.” Still, Jordan went on, he could not, in good conscience, vote to remove the tree because, like the majority of the other council members, he disagreed that Goldman had adequately explored other options to make her front yard and driveway more navigable do. During the site visits, staff had suggested pruning the cedar’s roots, repairing its front walkway, widening the driveway, and so on.
Still, Jordan said, he was annoyed by the way certain city officials had behaved during the appeal process. Jordan and the other council members never mentioned Slack or Cunningham by name, but it was clear who they were referring to. “You have an associate who speaks to people behind the scenes,” he said, citing possible violations of the Brown Act, which prohibits officials from discussing legislative issues privately -deaf Art about Ms. Goldman and her situation. … This is really just a mess we’re in. “
Councilors Friedman, Harmon, Sneddon and Mayor Cathy Murillo agreed with Jordan, saying they had “strong concerns” about the handling of the appeal, but believed that Goldman should consider alternative remedies. “There are options for the resident to live there and stay for the tree,” Murillo said. Still, she said, “It’s a shame that the trial and the city were shamed. We are to have integrity and conduct ourselves with integrity. “Murillo promised to investigate and take appropriate action.
Councilors Oscar Gutierrez and Alejandra Gutierrez (no relationship) voted for Goldman and felt empathized with their bad feelings about the city. “I apologize for all of this experience you went through,” said Oscar. “We will deal with the problems that were discussed tonight.”