DEAR WEHO 📬 Why the tree canopy is so important

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To: West Hollywood City Council
From: Lynn M. Hoopingarner, CMC
Date: December 16, 2023
RE: Citywide Landscape and Tree Canopy Standards

Four years ago, Council gave staff a task to develop “new definitions and standards that could achieve the City’s climate, sustainability, resilience, and health and wellness goals even more effectively, specifically a) exploring requiring a one-to-one replacement of canopy trees in new residential and commercial developments, and b) requiring a minimum number of new trees in new residential and commercial developments where they do not currently exist.”

Staff has done an excellent job of doing just that.  Developing objective standards that work to not only preserve our rapidly declining tree cover but to slowly bring it to standards that cities around the world now see as a minimum level for sustainability. In fact, just last month New York city council passed a measure calling for 30% canopy cover by 2035, up from its current 22% (the same as ours).  

Staff was very thorough in the comprehensiveness of their outreach throughout the residential and business community and to subject matter experts that has resulted in a ZTA that will not only achieve the goals outlined, but bring the city’s code into compliance with state requirements—since our existing code is both unclear and subjective.

Balance.  This ordinance is about bringing some balance back into our code to REPLACE existing trees lost to development and require minimum standards for trees in new projects.  As the staff report says, these are steps “to encourage a healthier ecosystem and a more purposeful balance between the built environment and a tree-enriched natural environment.”

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To be clear, this is still far from ideal from a climate protection perspective.  A mature tree may be “replaced” but it will take decades for the new tree to begin to provide the same benefits as the one chopped down.  A 30” (in diameter) oak provides 70 times more air pollutant interception than a 3” oak.  70 times!  

Income Inequality

Trees are not “luxury” items—even though statistically if you live in a low-income neighborhood you will have 41% fewer trees than wealthier communities. If you are a person of color you have 33% fewer trees than predominantly white communities.  

In our singular focus on building housing (with only about 15% actually affordable) we are denuding the city of its tree canopy with huge seven and eight story buildings built lot-line-to-lot-line. Look at the map on p. 7 of the staff report (Item 3A) .  The bulk of our tree canopy is in the wealthy single-family neighborhoods and there is a clear inequity in our multi-family zones.  Those statistics are proving true right here in WeHo.

In just the past few years in just a one block radius of my home, no less than a dozen very mature trees (more than 75 years old) have been chopped down.  In exchange we will have one new affordable unit and no replacement of any trees.  How can we be all up in arms about the cattle ranchers deforesting the Amazon and turn a blind eye when deforestation happens in our own back yard?

This is not sustainable.  Remember what the Eastern Bloc looked like after their huge housing booms of the middle of the last century?  Huge blocks of concrete with nary an ounce of green as far as the eye could see.  That is where we are headed unless we honor our “progressive” values and own our responsibility for our share of the climate crisis and make these nominal changes—as a start.

Trees are actually much more effective and cost-effective at addressing some of our most serious climate challenges: heat, rainwater runoff, air pollution.  In fact, “trees are the only piece of infrastructure that gains value over time!” Tree People

Heat

 “Average temperatures in Los Angeles have risen 6°F in the last 50 years as tree coverage has declined and the number of heat-absorbing roads and buildings has increased. Trees cool the city by up to 10°F, by shading our homes and streets, breaking up urban “heat islands” and releasing water vapor into the air through their leaves.” Tree People

While building codes work to require efficient HVAC, allow for solar cells and other ways to save energy, a tree actual reduces the need for energy as it acts like a natural air conditioning.  Three trees placed strategically around a single-family home can cut summer air conditioning needs by up to 50 percent—reducing carbon dioxide and other pollution emissions from power plants. Tree People

Trees decrease flooding and polluted runoff

It looks like we are headed into another wet winter.  A single medium-sized tree can soak up as much as 2,380 gallons of rain every year!  As part of our “climate action” we need to be working to develop resiliency for more winters like last year. 

Air Quality

Every breath we take is a little cleaner thanks to the trees around us!  The impact is so powerful that trees actually reduce healthcare costs in the surrounding community. Children who live in areas with more street trees are less likely to suffer from asthma. 

Health

“Exposure to trees has been shown to boost immunity, lower stress and blood pressure, enhance mood, sharpen focus and increase energy levels.” People with easy access to trees experience less depressionstronger senses of community, and lower rates of anxiety. Just looking at green landscapes can boost children’s ability to focus and bounce back from stress, which can even improve test scores.  

Urban trees absorb carbon pollution

This is the environmental benefit that trees are famous for. They absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide and release oxygen, which is crucial in fighting climate change. Conservation Law Foundation  We are a “pass through” city.  There is very little we are going to be able to do to change that but we can change how we work to minimize the health and climate impact of all those cars.

Wildlife

WeHo has a surprisingly rich wildlife community but to sustain it requires the tree canopy where they can nest, feed and find protection.  There is at least one mating pair of Great Horned Owls here (most likely nesting at Laurel House), I hear them regularly in my yard.  There are Cooper’s Hawks and so many other birds, butterflies, lizards and more.  But they all need a home.  Importantly for biodiversity, animals need to be able to travel and they can’t do that if chunks of the community are denuded.

While developers will try to tell you that if we insist on replacing those “pesky trees” it will cost affordable housing, that it will limit their design options. Staff’s analysis has shown this is not the case.  Especially since the state has now reduced, or in some cases eliminated, parking requirements leaving considerable opportunity for the same housing AND much needed green space.  In fact, with the increased trend towards micro, mini and extra-mini sized housing, outdoor green space will be needed even more.  Do we really want to be the city that adds more inequitable low-income housing to the 41% already without tree and green space?

In our singular focus on the housing crisis, we have been ignoring the impact of all this construction on the climate crises right here at home.  This really is not an either/or discussion.  We are the “creative city”.  We have the capability to be creative in developing balanced solutions to some of the most intractable challenges of our times.  This ZTA is just a small, but important, first step towards re-establishing the balance in our community with quality of life for ALL the residents.  We are leaders in so many social justice areas, we can be equally leaders in protecting our climate right here at home.

Please support this ZTA as proposed by staff, and approved by Planning Commission, and let’s move toward a greener, more equitable future. 

Thank you.

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About Lynn Hoopingarner
Lynn Hoopingarner is the former chair of the West Hollywood Planning Commission. A native of Michigan, she is a Certified Management Consultant® and has owned her own consulting firm since 1992. She is also an avid gardener; the garden at her home in WeHo has been designated a National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Refuge.

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Stephanie Harker
Stephanie Harker
2 months ago

Lynn is a true progressive, a Master Gardener and raises the things we should ALL be concerned about when it comes to the Climate Crisis. I have high hopes that members of the Council will support this ZTA, particularly those who seek higher office, as we NEED representatives who take the crisis as just that, a CRISIS. The city touts itself as “Creative”. Let’s be sure we hire “creative” developers to design our future that addresses society’s desperate need to literally save the planet 🌎. Let us change the lyrics to “Let there be GREEN on earth,” and let it… Read more »

ENVIRONMENT FIRST
ENVIRONMENT FIRST
2 months ago

The TREE CANOPY ZTA is a well researched and thoughtful item enhanced by the comments of Lynn Hoopengarner. Having grown up on the East Coast in locations where high sensitivity to these elements were a priority I would wholeheartedly endorse this effort. Ric Abramson also has shown a particular sensitivity which hopefully will be imparted to developers of projects in West Hollywood.

Think of the TREE CANOPY as our lungs which must not unnecessarily be damaged if we care about not disrupting the natural evolution of nature.

Uron
Uron
2 months ago

Lynn, please announce your candidacy for city council soon. We need you.

Cathy
Cathy
2 months ago

Thank you Lynn for this well researched and enlightening article. I truly fear for our city if this ZTA does not pass.

I honestly cannot IMAGINE why Council would not!?

Mikie
Mikie
2 months ago

1114 Clark had a large ficus tree in their front yard. It shaded all the west facing apartments from the afternoon sun. Sadly, the owner cut it down, and the tenants complained that the temperature in their apartments skyrocketed in the afternoon. The owner has not replaced the tree, so the tenants have found interesting ways to put up lattice work on their balconies to block out the sun’s rays.
Trees really do make a huge difference, and I hope that tomorrow night, the developers will limp away from this fight beaten, and with their proverbial tails between their legs!

Steve Martin
Steve Martin
2 months ago

Thank you Lynn for this insightful report. It is ironic that while the City has worked hard to develop “green” construction, much of the benefit is lost when developers destroy existing trees and which are seldom effectively replaced.

David Gardner
David Gardner
2 months ago

Excellent article Lynn. As the City’s first Urban forest Manager from 1996 to 2013, we increased the number of trees in the City’s right of way from roughly 5,000 to 10,000. Towards the end of my time with the City I can say there was increasing pressure for removal of trees with the larger developments, particularly large residential complexes. More than once large trees that were in the way of construction were “accidentally” cut down, only to be replaced with fewer and smaller trees. Your article is well written, and covers all of the important characteristics that a large and… Read more »

John Ensign
John Ensign
2 months ago

These are excellent ideas. They do involve government. Several large canopy trees were removed in our building 3 years ago. It went through several city departments. After 3 years there was a word salad non-explanation why the trees weren’t replaced. Landscaping professionals looked at the reasoning and laughed.

JF1
JF1
2 months ago

And why do we hire vendors to butcher our trees? Doesn’t anyone from the city monitor the tree trimming companies that are hired to trim our city trees. Almost every year our trees are trimmed, they are OVER trimmed.

gdaddy
gdaddy
2 months ago
Reply to  JF1

Yeah the horrible owner of 884 Palm Ave tried to use a tree trimming permit to fully cut down her trees. If not for me calling code compliance that crazy lady would’ve gotten away with it. They were nearly stumps, but thankfully seem to have come back decently. Her workers said she kept telling them to cut more. Among other laws she breaks, she actively lists units on Airbnb and doesn’t have an on site manager despite the size requiring it. I once called the number on the sign trying to connect with someone and it was a realtor who… Read more »

Miscreants
Miscreants
2 months ago
Reply to  gdaddy

As an aside to this, West Hollywood could benefit from having a Public Advocate. In Manhattan, it is an elected position and the one occupied by current AG Letitia James in 2013 when I first became aware of her efforts. She had produced a list of Manhattan’s most egregious landlords and was actually sued by one notable landlord on the list for a considerable amount. He was in the upper echelons of real estate ventures at one time bidding for the Plaza Hotel. From the bench, the Judge commented, after dismissing the suit that ” he would be well advised… Read more »

GOT SHADE
GOT SHADE
2 months ago
Reply to  gdaddy

Thank G-d for Lynn. We need more trees and less “affordable” housing. RICK Abrams is so correct. #Urban Design 1st, then we can house people. #UNITS/DOORS FOLLOWS URBAN DESIGN.

JF1
JF1
2 months ago
Reply to  gdaddy

Bravo to you for calling code compliance! Not sure which trees you mean though. No one is supposed to cut trees in the parkway (the space between the sidewalk and their property)…at all….those are city trees that belong to the public. Trees on personal property…I think they can do whatever they want…it’s on their personal property.

Lack of Experise on City Staff
Lack of Experise on City Staff
2 months ago
Reply to  JF1

There is no one on City Staff that has the expertise to know what questions ot ask of the tree trimming vendors and how to guide them. Having resided in the East for most of my life I see a serious disconnect with these companies and the city. The type of “trimming” then provide is to provide them ongoing revenue through unwarranted and not healthy growth . A vicious cycle unmonitored.

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