Council divided on tree removal for pollen issues

Things always get interesting in Claremont, especially when there’s talk about removing city trees.

Alice Perrault and her 15-year-old son Julius came before the city council Tuesday night to request the removal of two healthy holly oaks on the 100 block of E. Green Street, a neighborhood known for its mature trees. Standing 25 and 35 feet, the holly oaks are the only two of their kind on the block. The Coast Live Oak had been the only designated street tree until the city council approved the expanded Designated Street Tree List earlier this year.

Typically, tree removal requests that come before city staff are denied, as they don’t meet the strict criteria for removal as outlined by city guidelines. However, Ms. Perrault felt there were extenuating circumstances pertaining to her request that needed to be brought to the attention of the city council.

After moving into their Claremont home in July 2013, Ms. Perrault noticed that two holly oaks—one on their property and another on their neighbor’s property bordering her driveway—created an abundance of pollen. The health of her son Julius, who has cerebral palsy and suffers from allergies and periodic asthma attacks, dramatically worsened after moving in to their new home.

“The allergist that has been following my son has made it very clear that the problem he is having right now is with particles, and that is the reason that this particular oak is causing so many problems,” Ms. Perrault told the council. “When we moved into this house, and when this tree started to bloom, my son was severely affected.”

In February 2014, Julius went into severe respiratory stress and was hospitalized numerous times. At that point, Julius was put on medication and Ms. Perrault reached out to the city in search of a remedy with the hope of alleviating her son’s distress.

“At the request of the homeowner, the city pruned the trees in an effort to mitigate the problem,” said Community Services Director Kathleen Trepa. “It didn’t.”

Undeterred, and with the support of her neighbor, Ms. Perrault submitted a tree removal request to city staff in May 2014. The request was denied because it didn’t meet the criteria of the Tree Policies and Guideline Manual. The city’s municipal code,  however, authorizes the Community and Human Services Commission to grant requests if it finds that not removing the tree would result in a burden on the property owner—a burden that outweighs the benefit to the public of maintaining the tree.

In February 2015, Ms. Perrault’s request came before the Tree Committee, who again denied her request, despite documentation of her son’s condition from a physician.

Members of the Tree Action Group (TAG) came to the Tree Committee meeting. Ben Wise, a one-year member of TAG, was assigned the task of reading a letter from one of TAG’s members, Mark von Wodtke. A self-proclaimed allergy sufferer, Mr. von Wodtke suggested Julius rinse his nasal passages and sinuses with saline solution, coat his nostrils with honey and exercise the ancient practice of Qigong, despite the fact that Julius is confined to a wheelchair. The suggestions were not well received by Ms. Perrault.

“The gentleman that listed that information from the letter, you could tell he was embarrassed,” Ms. Perrault says of that meeting. “He came up to me afterwards, apologetic, and said those were the things he was told to present. He’d experienced Julius, but the other people who weren’t there didn’t. They had their little meeting at home and then they said, ‘Okay, make these suggestions and represent us.’”

From there, the request would typically have moved up the chain to the Community and Human Services Commission for consideration but, due to warm weather, the trees in question began pollinating earlier than normal. Because of Julius’ special needs and debilitating asthma, the request was propelled directly to city council.

“I do have a HEPA filter, not a home- sealed system. I also recently purchased an air quality monitor that measures the amount of particles in my house,” explained Ms. Perrault when asked by council what she was doing to mitigate the problem. “With this particular monitor, if the air quality numbers are above 1,000 that’s very poor air. When the windows are open, we are well over 1,000. When I close the windows and run the HEPA filter, we drop below 100.”

Expressing concern for the boy’s health, Councilman Joe Lyons asked if she saw any symptomatic relief from the situation with this practice.

“Absolutely, he’s able to sleep through the night,” she responded.

Citing a written assessment by the New York Allergy and Science Center, Mayor Corey Calaycay went on to say, “Unfortunately, the only two ways to really address it is to be aware of pollen counts and stay indoors when you know pollen counts are high. And, of course, the other thing is medication is a necessary treatment.”

“I think this is the problem we’re all having, and one that you’ve acknowledged yourself,” Mr. Calaycay expressed, addressing Ms. Perrault. “We can remove these two trees, but it may still not address the problem. Other trees on the block may be contributing to the problem.”

Mayor Pro Tem Sam Pedroza disagreed with this assessment.

“Not all of us feel that way,” Mr. Pedroza said. “I’ve been on this council where we’ve removed trees simply because they were in the way of a pipe. Yes, we are the City of Trees. Yes, we value our trees very, very much, but this is something that seems like a no-brainer. If this tree has the particulate matter that is falling down and being dragged into their home, I think the request here is pretty clear.”

With that, Mr. Pedroza announced his vote would be to have the tree removed. Mr. Lyons agreed.

“We have allowed removal for much less significant issues,” Mr. Lyons said. “I will vote to remove what is clearly a significant contribution in the area.”

Council members Larry Schroeder and Opanyi Nasiali were of a different mindset, dividing the council right down the middle.

“I’m not unsympathetic to this and I understand allergies. My granddaughter has celiac disease,” said Mr. Schroeder. “This time of year, my tree drops the same type of particles. I close my windows and have a HEPA filter. It’s not just an emotional decision here. I think the tree can be causing particles but it could be a number of things. I think we should use science. There’s no base figures on this and it’s not clear that the removal of this tree will improve the situation. Until I can get more empirical information on this, I’ll vote against the removal.”

Mr. Nasiali agreed.

“I’m sympathetic to the condition the young man is in,” expressed Mr. Nasiali. “But I’m not convinced there is conclusive evidence that by removing this tree the problem will go away. Therefore, I cannot support the decision to remove the tree.”

The matter then came before Mayor Calaycay for a deciding vote.

“I never thought during my first meeting it would come down to this,” he said. “These aren’t small trees; it changes the face of the neighborhood. I’m not 100 percent convinced removing the trees is going to solve the problem.”

Mr. Pedroza then moved to remove the two trees, a motion that was seconded by Mr. Lyons, only to be withdrawn minutes later as Mr. Lyons proposed a subsequent motion: to postpone a decision on the item until they could get air quality assessments of the area around the house to see if these trees were the cause of the condition.

The subsequent motion was seconded by Mayor Calaycay but failed when put to vote by council. Mr. Pedroza then moved his original motion, seconded again by Mr. Lyons.

“If removing those trees continues to make this kid healthy and we’re going to plant other trees that, in a few years, will be just as tall, then at least we tried,” Mr. Pedroza said. “That’s all I’m asking for, and I think that’s all this parent is asking from us as a city.”

Mr. Pedroza added that as city leaders, the council should make this difficult decision that, hopefully, will improve the life of one of its young residents.

“Maybe we’ll make her son’s life a little better. If not, then she has to explore other options. But as a city, we’re saying that we support her,” Mr. Pedroza said.­

To the delight of Ms. Perrault, her tree removal request was approved, 3-2, with Mr. Calyacay providing the swing vote. Mr. Schroeder and Mr. Nasiali denied the request.

“I’m not unsympathetic to everyone’s concerns about the trees,” Ms. Perrault said. “I love the trees, they’re beautiful. They’re one of the reasons we love Claremont. I want to thank Mr. Lyons and Mr. Pedroza for putting up their dukes for Julius.”

Like his Claremont High School classmates, Julius will be on spring break next month. Ms. Perrault will have the trees removed while Julius takes a vacation with his father. At $1,530 for removal, she will work with the city to mitigate the cost, as well as plant four trees in place of the two that will be removed.

—Angela Bailey


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