SPECIAL INVESTIGATIONS / MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENT

Summary:

We were engaged by the Beverly Hills City Council to investigate why and how it happened that almost 100 trees were clear-cut on an arsenic-contaminated vacant lot owned by a private company without any public notice and possibly endangering public health. We interviewed 44 people, including City staff, the landowners, nearby residents, arborists, the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) project manager for the site and the workers who removed the trees. We also reviewed thousands of documents, including emails and arborist reports. We prepared a report and timeline for the City with our conclusions about what happened and why it happened.

The Story:
The property, which is located in the heart of Beverly Hills, near the Civic Center, was formerly a railroad right of way. The railroad had contaminated the site, probably from the use of pesticides along the railway to prevent weeds from growing on the tracks. The property is under the jurisdiction of the DTSC until it is cleaned up and the railroad has entered into a voluntary agreement to clean up the site. Before the railroad can clean up the site, however, they need to know the future use of the site. If it is going to be condominium or retail space with underground parking - as the landowners wish - it will need to be cleaned up differently than if it is simply going to be a park - as nearby residents and others in the City prefer.

 

When the new owners of the land purchased the property in July 2014, they hoped to develop the property. Their environmental lawyers went to work trying to move along the DTSC in their process of producing a Removal Action Workplan and ordering a clean up. The property has hundreds of trees on the site and the new landowners also began expressing concern that the trees that overlooked two heavily travelled streets were unstable and the branches or the tree trunks could fall and hit a passing car or pedestrian. Shortly after one incident where a tree did fall, the landowners hired an arborist who recommended removing three or four trees diseased trees immediately and to consider removing all of the Eucalyptus trees - the ones that were most likely to fall in a high wind. Subsequent to that report and after discussions with the City arborist and others on the City staff, the landowners removed 100 trees and bushes on one weekend, clear-cutting one side of the property. They could not cut down the trees on the other side of the property because the City had a 20 foot easement on that side and the City requires a public notification before trees can be cut on City property. After an uproar by residents who were shocked by the tree removals, the landowners insisted that the only reason for cutting down the trees was to insure public safety.

 

Our four-month investigation concluded that most of the nearly 100 trees that were removed did not need to be removed for public safety reasons, contrary to the claim of the landowners. Based on our interviews, we concluded that the trees were removed by the company primarily to facilitate a future development of the property.

 

We also concluded that the landowners performed the tree removals without properly consulting the DTSC and asking for their oversight. Thus, they had possibly jeopardized the health of the workers, as well as the nearby residents and visitors to the area. Air monitoring should have been done at the time of the removal work, which would have alerted properly trained workers to take additional safety steps if, in fact, there were high levels of arsenic-contaminated dust in the air. Because the landowners did not comply with those precautions the DTSC would have required during a large project like this on contaminated property, no one can know for sure whether the removal of the trees actually jeopardized public health.

 

Although those clearly responsible for the tree removals were the landowners, we also concluded that several members of the City's staff were also responsible for what happened. Had they taken some common sense steps all of the trees might not have been removed and certainly not in a way that might have jeopardized public safety. The incident involved decision-making by City staff in a unique situation - the removal of a very large number of trees not just anywhere, but on contaminated property. Senior staff, however, did not ask for any advice, did not consult a single Councilmember or Commissioner, did not speak to the environmental attorney from the City Attorney's law firm who was aware of the arsenic contamination on the property and did not consult the DTSC to verify the landowner's assertion that this removal of 100 trees would not disturb the contaminated soil. They alone made all of the City's decisions that allowed the tree cutting to go forward, preventing any actions by elected officials and certainly any public notification or involvement.

 

At the conclusion of our report, we made a number or recommendations, including encouraging the City to revise and strengthen their Tree Preservation Ordinance, which didn't apply in this case.


To read the full report at BeverlyHills.org, click here:

 

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