About 30 half-century-old Modesto Ash trees tower above a two-block stretch of Waverly Street in Napa, creating a canopy that shades the street, with sunlight glimmering through in spots, shining upon areas of rough asphalt and sidewalk slabs that jut out at odd angles.
The trees in question, which community members say essentially define the neighborhood’s identity, are set to be removed over a two-week period starting Monday. That’s because they’re in conflict with infrastructure, including the sidewalks, power lines, a gas main and the street itself, according to Jeff Gittings, parks and urban forestry manager for the city.
Leaving the trees in place — and therefore not repairing the infrastructure — would present safety hazards that could lead to claims or litigation, Gittings said.
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In response to seeing city notifications about the pending removal posted on most of the trees last week, about 15 community members organized at 5:30 p.m. Friday, on short notice, for a Waverly Street neighborhood meeting. Gittings, parks and recreation director Breyana Brandt, public works director Julie Lucido and city manager Steve Potter also showed up.
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Potter expressed appreciation for the beauty of the trees and what they’ve brought to the neighborhood, but added that — from the city’s perspective — the removal work needs to go forward, owing to safety concerns and various legal requirements.
“I know having been born and raised in Napa that this tree-lined street is really the identity of the neighborhood and everybody loves it,” Potter said at the meeting. “So that’s what makes it a challenge to me to get involved in things like this. I know historically what that means, and so sometimes I have a little bit of a conflict between what needs to be done and where my heart is at.”
Much of the meeting consisted of the community members asking questions to the city officials about the removal plans. The local residents expressed surprise at how swiftly the trees were going to be pulled out, and said the city hadn’t communicated appropriately. As such, several of them requested the city delay the planned removal, though Potter said the city needed to move forward because it needs to work with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s tight scheduling.
“The crews are lined up. We don’t want to lose the ability to use them; we have a timeline set,” Potter said.
Elizabeth Olcott, who hosted the Waverly Street meeting, noted that the community members previously had a similar meeting with the city several years ago, with Mayor Scott Sedgley — a city councilmember at the time — and the city's former parks manager David Perazzo, among other city employees.
Olcott said there was another system of determining whether the trees needed to come down or not that was discussed at that meeting, which gave them the impression that some of the trees could remain even if most of them needed to be removed. Local residents received a letter about the removal early this month, she said, but weren’t aware that it would involve taking down nearly all the trees until last week.
“It just feels really wrong and it’s just, it’s visceral,” Olcott said. “Some people have lived on this street for 20, 30, 40 years. We certainly aren’t going to see the rebuild; I’ll be long dead before we have this kind of a tree-lined street again.”
Olcott also noted that, had the city met with the community a few months ago, it would have given the community members time to digest the information. Removing the trees will radically change the neighborhood, she said, and she estimated property values in the area will drop considerably.
“It could've been handled in a way that was much, much, much more respectful of all of us,” Olcott said.
Potter apologized, and said the city would take the criticism into consideration in the future and try to do more outreach.
Sedgley said in a Friday interview that he recalled the 2018 meeting, and noted that the issue is very difficult, given that the mature trees are lovely and do good for carbon sequestration and cooling. But, he noted, there are few alternatives to cutting the trees down when they threaten infrastructure to the extent the Waverly Street trees do.
“Sadly, sometimes the trees need to come down,” Sedgley said. “... I believe everybody understood that eventually the time would come.”
Gittings, who noted the city had been fielding calls about the tree removal all week, said most of the homes in the neighborhood were built in the 1950s and ‘60s, and the trees in question were also planted around that time. The Modesto Ashes have a maximum lifespan of roughly 70 years, he said, which means most of the trees are reaching the end of their natural lives. Over the last few years, the parks department has responded to a high number of limb and trail failures in the neighborhood, he said, and the city’s also received numerous complaints about the condition of the street, with requests to complete the sidewalk and street repairs.
Gittings said that PG&E crews will be cutting down the trees that are presenting problems to PG&E infrastructure, at their expense. That includes the overhead power lines on the south side of the street, and an underground gas main on the north side. The city’s own tree crew will also likely be removing more of the trees after PG&E completes its work, Gittings noted, but having PG&E handle the bulk of the work is a financial benefit and, owing to specific training, doesn’t require power in the area to be shut off while the work is carried out.
Gittings said the city will be providing the community with more size-appropriate trees in the future. There’s a slight possibility some of the ash trees slated to be removed could be saved, he added, but it’s unlikely.
“If we think there’s an opportunity to shave them, and if we think there’s sufficient room to put back sidewalk, there’s a possibility a few trees will stay.” Gittings said. “But more than likely, for the reasons I talked about, these trees have gotten so large in the plan area. It’s more than likely if we go in and try to do any root pruning on those trees, we’ll create an unstable tree. And that’s just something for public safety we’re not willing to do.”
PG&E will also be moving the gas main starting on Oct. 24, and that should take no more than a month, according to Lucido. She noted the city can’t carry out needed sidewalk and street fixes, along with Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, until the trees come down. Waverly Street lost out on the last round of paving and street work because of community resistance to the trees being removed, Gittings noted.
“I can’t just walk away from fixing this,” Lucido said. “It is safety to the community, and so we have the resources coordinated to fix these sidewalks. We need to make that happen from a safety perspective.”