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There has been an enthusiastic debate simmering in the Curtis Park neighborhood for quite some time now. The topic of discussion: heritage trees in development zones and their proposed removal. But through the passionate exchanges from local residents and the developer of the project, cooler heads express the need for civility. I learned this while speaking candidly with two citizens working hard behind the scenes on this hot-button topic over the weekend.
Patrick Soluri, Sierra Curtis Neighborhood Association president, gave me the CliffsNotes version of information from years of hearings, public meetings, press releases and e-mails from neighborhood advocates.
In a nutshell: The Petrovich Development Company, owners of the former rail yards adjacent to 24th Street, plan to develop the 72-acre site and want to remove all trees on the property in efforts to clean toxins left over from years of industrial use. Neighbors around the development have voiced concerns over losing what they deem to be irreplaceable heritage oak trees on the site.
As these things tend to go, emotions became intense, promises made in good faith for whatever reason were not kept, and people’s wires have become frayed. “That’s when the notices went up on Portola Way,” Soluri said. “The letters said the trees were coming down. I thought we were going to have another discussion with the developer. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen. The neighbors became concerned.”
Fielding the concerns of neighborhood activists with their passionate beliefs and trying to find common ground to find a realistic compromise is no small task. But while the Petrovich Development Company and the SCNA have historically had a somewhat contentious relationship, Soluri said he is open for fostering a continuous and mutually respectful dialogue.
“Discussion helps.“ Soluri repeatedly said. “It gets us into the process and helps to keep the neighborhood informed. And it promotes accountability with any concessions we may achieve. If we compromise, it’s important that the terms of the compromise are followed through by those promised them. We want to make sure that happens.”
Dan Airola, a certified wildlife biologist and Curtis Park resident, pointed out that “Down the line, we’re looking at losing these trees for other reasons, too.” Final plot lines for the proposed development have yet to be drawn, and trees that pass any toxicity testing may still have a date with a chainsaw if they are in the middle of a future intersection. “But even more remarkable than the age or size of these trees is the number of migratory birds I’ve observed in these trees: much more than in the surrounding areas.”
Airola produced his own study, which claimed that the number of migratory birds using the trees slated for removal is many times higher than in the trees in populated areas. Airola said that in some cases the bird density is 38 times greater in these heritage trees that other similar areas. The reasons why these trees in particular are more dense than other requires further study, but Airola said he is unsure how any developer can replace this environment pound-for-pound without the luxury of time, a luxury the birds may not be able to afford.
“Some trees have to go.” Airola freely admitted. “The nature of the toxicity is such that no amount of cleaning can be effective without removing some trees. But any tree that can be saved should be saved. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
While providing me with a tour of the development border, Airola’s passion for the trees’ preservation was apparent. However, so was his willingness to concede that at the end of the day a mutually beneficial compromise with the developer would still be a favorable result from this community activism.
“As soon as the permits are approved, we’ll probably lose more trees,” he said. “But if we can get some accountability on some of these concessions, then maybe we can save something irreplaceable for the future generations. Let’s get people out, let’s activate people, have a dialogue and hash this issue out.”
I was able to speak briefly with Phillip Harvey, vice president of development for the Petrovich Development Company, about finding common ground with the locals.
“We are beholden to several safety regulations in order to certify that the earth is free of toxins,” he said. “Despite rumors to the contrary, we cannot simply vacuum up the dirt around the trunks of the trees and call them safe. That’s just not how it works. However, we have been working with City Councilman (Jay) Schenirer toward moving to a conclusion on this issue, and we’re looking forward to putting this matter behind us.”
Citizens will get another chance to have to their say and hear arguments from both sides an what could be the penultimate hearing on this matter at 9 a.m. Friday at the historic City Hall, second floor, 915 I St.
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