date palms MB 2019

Manhattan Beach resident Johnna Stone looks up toward a row of date palms on 34th Street estimated at more than 100 years old. The date palms are sheduled to cut down soon as part of new home development at the site. (Photo by David Rosenfeld)

Manhattan Beach resident Johnna Stone wants to save the old date palms on her quaint street near the ocean.

“We don’t want to lose all our trees,” she said on a recent afternoon, looking up at the broad leaves reaching down toward the ground on a cluster of date palms on 34th Street and Bayview Drive.

The trees sit behind construction fencing on a property that was recently sold. The homes on the lot were torn down a few weeks ago and the date palms could be next, based on what Stone was told by a crew working on the site.

A co-owner of the property declined to comment for this story. City officials will meet soon to discuss the trees — which stand in an area with a complex zoning status — and their future.

In the meantime, Stone and a group of neighbors want to do whatever they can to save the trees.

It’s unclear how old the trees truly are. Neighbors believe the date palms could be more than 100 years old. A city arborist, however, estimates they are 25 to 30 years of age. A different arborist, 15 years ago, said the trees were about 80 years old, Stone said.

Even though the trees are healthy and technically on public property, preserving them might not be that easy.

That’s because the date palms sit in a section of land known as an encroachment area. Similar to a parkway strip — land between the sidewalk and the property line — an encroachment permit allows adjacent property owners to construct things such as patios and fences, but the city ultimately regulates the property, according to Laurie Jester, city planner. 

A new encroachment permit is required any time the property changes ownership or substantial renovations are made.

And here’s the catch: “One of the codes says that landscaping cannot be more than 42 inches in height,” Jester said.

That flies in the face of common sense, according to Sheree Fahey, who along with Stone wants to save the trees.

“There should be an ordinance saying you can’t tear down healthy trees for development,” Fahey said.

Jester explained that in the case of trees in the park strip, owners need to present a valid reason for cutting down a healthy tree before receiving approval from the city. In this case, the date palms are located in the encroachment area so the 42-inch rule applies, Jester said.

City officials are expected to meet about the date palms in the coming weeks and decide what to do, Jester said. Whether the matter goes to the City Council or a city commission will also be decided.

“What’s important to the city is balancing our code, the desires of the owner, and the desires of the neighborhood,” Jester said. “We try to be open and take all of those things into consideration.”

It’s not the first time these trees have been in the spotlight. In 2004, the date palms were the subject of a similar debate when an encroachment permit renewal came up. At that time, a group of residents wanted them cut down and the owner wanted to save them, according to Jester.

Contact Lisa Jacobs or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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