While residents, the city, and arborists argue over the fate of the lemon-scented gum eucalyptus trees on Marine Avenue on Balboa Island, a handful of locals are concerned there’s more going on than meets the eye.
They claim the incentive “behind the curtain” is fueled by flipping properties and facilitating development along the iconic street, but it’s at the expense of the business owners and residents, as well as the tourists who visit Balboa Island for its quaint, small-town charm.
As the Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission prepares to hear the tree issue on Tuesday, the group of Balboa Island residents say they’re fighting to keep the unique character of Marine Avenue intact.
The newly created Balboa Island Preservation Association has been at the forefront of keeping the trees intact, with resident Jodi Bole leading the effort. The group has created an association, a website, and a Go Fund Me page to support its goal.
There has been debate over whether or not potential removal of trees along the island’s entrance is related to a rehabilitation plan slated for Marine Avenue.
According to the city’s approved Capital Improvement Program for fiscal year 2019-20, $231,129 has been earmarked for the Marine Avenue reconstruction project. Senior civil engineer Peter Tauscher is listed as project manager.
“This involves concept development, design and permitting of the complete reconstruction of Marine Avenue on Balboa Island from Bay Front North to Bay Front South, as requested by Balboa Island residents,” the CIP document reads.
On Aug. 8, Public Information Officer Mary Locey posted a statement on Nextdoor.com, explaining the “facts about the Marine Avenue trees.”
The city was considering a revitalization plan to improve drainage and street and sidewalk conditions “at the request of some of the Balboa Island community groups,” she wrote.
“That plan has been on hold for several months, pending further community input on the project and the timing of the project in relation to other needed infrastructure projects on Balboa Island,” Locey explained in the message.
Although whether or not the project is “on hold” is disputed. Councilman Jeff Herdman, whose district covers Balboa Island, said in a phone interview on Thursday that the project is moving forward, and they are currently in the community feedback phase. Although Locey confirmed in an email Friday that “staff is not actively working on the proposed redesign of Marine Avenue.”
A point all city officials have agreed upon is that the ongoing tree maintenance discussion is separate from any possible Marine Avenue rehabilitation project.
The trees were discussed in the initial stages of the revitalization planning, as was the “community’s desire to retain the historical image that the large, mature trees provide for the business district,” Locey noted in the Aug. 8 Nextdoor post.
Locey explained that the city’s recommendation includes: Continue with an annual inspection and pruning program; remove 10 trees the city arborist identified as high-risk this year (2019-20); replace the removed trees with new eucalyptus trees; plant new eucalyptus trees in the five vacant tree wells; and reassess the remaining trees annually.
“There is no plan to remove all of the trees at one time,” Locey wrote. “Any tree that is removed will be replaced with a eucalyptus tree. Should the city move forward with a revitalization project in the future, the young and healthy trees have a far superior chance of surviving construction-related activity.”
Although city staff has pointed out that the project was born out of requests for improvements from the community, in an Aug. 22 letter, signed by Olive Oil and Beyond owner Matthew Pour and at least 30 other Balboa Island merchants, they argue that their position is being misrepresented.
“Merchants agree that some improvements and continued additional maintenance of Marine Avenue are warranted, but by no means did the merchants or residents approve the complete redesign of Marine Avenue,” Pour wrote. “Island merchants recognize that such a redevelopment would significantly and permanently alter the beloved character and charm of Marine Avenue… changing Marine Avenue to resemble a homogenous strip mall will only destroy the attraction of the Island experience.”
People live, vacation, and shop on Balboa Island primarily due to the “historical look, feel and charm of the Island,” he added. It’s a unique experience to walk “back into time under a canopy of tall trees and quaint surroundings.”
Residents have also raised concerns that the plan to rehabilitate Marine Avenue will encourage developers to buy up properties, raise rents to the point that small, local businesses have to close, then bring in high-end, chain stores.
This is the misinformation being spread that causes people’s concern to rise, Herdman said in a phone interview on Thursday.
“There is simply no truth to this at all,” Herdman emphasized.
Considering the zoning rules and parking constraints, it’s not even conceivable that a chain or big box store would come to the island, Herdman added.
As evidence, some residents have pointed to Manouch Moshayedi and his affiliated LLCs, which own several recently acquired properties on Marine Avenue, including the sites of the former Hershey’s Market and the post office.
According to Secretary of State records, Moshayedi manages 200 Marine Avenue LLC and 206 Marine Avenue LLC. Both have the same business address listed at 2505 W. Coast Hwy., suite 201.
Also at that address is MX3 Ventures LLC, managed by Ariane and Sebastian Moshayedi, and MSM Global Ventures LLC, managed by Mark Moshayedi, according to state documents.
All are listed as property management or real estate investment businesses.
According to Orange County records, those LLCs collectively own properties at 200–202, 206, 218, 225 Marine Ave.
Herdman pointed out that Moshayedi has no future plans to change the post office, other properties he simply refurbished, and people are generally excited for Irvine Ranch Market to take over the old Hershey’s location. Moshayedi has brought improvements, he added.
The rents going up and businesses not being able to afford the property has been a “habitual problem for years,” Herdman explained. This is not a new occurrence brought on by Moshayedi or any other property owners.
Another concern is transparency and representation. Some residents are pointing to the island’s Council representative as the source of a conflict of interest.
In 2017, the California Fair Political Practices Commission ruled that Herdman has a conflict of interest in “participating in decisions related to the improvements of Marine Avenue because there will be a reasonably foreseeable material financial effect upon his financial interests” due to a residence he owns within 500 feet of the Island’s main street.
Herdman recused himself “out of an abundance of caution” from an Aug. 13 study session, but a few residents claim he’s still been involved in discussions, and not representing them accurately.
Herdman confirmed in a phone interview on Thursday that he has a recommendation from FPPC to recuse himself from any projects related to Marine Avenue.
“However, when I’m asked questions or I receive an email from a constituent, I’ll answer with the pertinent information,” he said.
The FPPC letter is in regard to any official discussion or decision, he clarified. He welcomes residents to contact him for accurate, honest, and updated information about anything that has to do with Balboa Island.”
In another act concerning the lack of transparency, residents noted that renderings of a potential design for Marine Avenue were online and then removed.
In a March 13 email to Public Works Director Dave Webb and CC’d to City Manager Grace Leung, Herdman pointed out that renderings of one possible idea for the Marine Avenue rehabilitation project were on the city website. He explained that there was concerns about the eucalyptus trees being replaced with palm trees on Nextdoor.com, and the response was “not good.”
“I sure would like to have them pulled,” Herdman wrote. “Can we get those renderings taken down for now while this topic is so hot?”
Deputy City Manager Tara Finnigan replied that it would take some work so there weren’t “two (obvious) blank spaces,” but confirmed that the page was taken offline that night.
“Not ideal, but it’s the quickest thing I could think of that would help Jeff out for this evening,” she wrote.
The images that were on the page were conceptual renderings – ideas of what a potential project could look like for further discussion, Finnigan explained in an email Thursday.
It was the pre-planning, “this is an idea that could be done stage,” she noted. The renderings weren’t well received by members of the community and the images were raising concerns. It was nowhere near a final concept, she confirmed.
“To help stem the concern and prevent folks from thinking that was a final product, we took the renderings down to continue the conversation about what the community wants to see.what, if anything, would they want to see happen on Marine Ave.,” Finnigan wrote. “I took a look back at the email chain and confirmed my earlier recollection that it was late in the evening. I happened to still be in the office that night and without the page creator or project manager (who may have had photos or info to add to the page) present, I opted to just take the page offline for the evening.”
The missing conceptual art didn’t go unnoticed by residents at the Aug. 13 Council study session, with several members of the public using the incident as an example of the city’s lack of transparency. The renderings and the project page were still absent from the city website on Thursday.
“The project managers (city staffers) decided it was best to not display any possible concepts pending further community input on the potential project,” Finnigan explained in an email.
Earlier in the year, in a Jan. 11 email, Herdman mentioned that there is a need to begin to replace properties on Marine Avenue because of the overall condition, some “basically being held up by termites.” Herdman raised concerns that the rehabilitation project may cause damage to those properties and asked if the city was prepared for this.
“Might it be a good idea to host a meeting with the property owners and explain what will be taking place, and should damage to their property occur, explain the process for how to get the damage repaired,” Herdman suggested.
In March, a couple of community meetings were held and there was some discussion during a Council meeting. It’s an ongoing effort, he added.
The opposing opinions primarily revolve around several arborist reports that came to differing conclusions.
In March, BIPA paid for an independent arborist to analyze and report on the Marine Avenue trees. The Arborgate Consulting Report, authored by consulting arborist Greg Applegate, recommended removing three eucalyptus trees.
Applegate reported that most of the trees were good condition and he didn’t find any signs of root decay at the Aug. 13 meeting.
No pathogens were detected in a test of eucalyptus branch samples, according to a letter from BIPA-hired plant pathologist Paul Santos of the horticultural division of Waypoint Analytical.
The city’s contracted arborist Walt Warriner came to a different conclusion.
Warriner deemed 27 trees “high” for overall risk rating, which he recommended for immediate removal, and classified 10 more trees as “moderate,” and suggested they be re-assessed in about a year.
On Aug. 13, city Landscape Manager Kevin Pekar noted the 10 “worst” trees that he felt were the highest risk and could “fall completely over.” Pekar feels strongly that those 10 should be replaced soon and that the 17 others should follow within two to three years.
City staff explained that the trees have root rot and heartwood decay and those issues are caused by a fungus, Finnigan noted in an email Thursday.
“So, fungus is the underlying problem,” she concluded.
The Marine Avenue trees will be up for discussion at the Parks, Beaches, and Recreation Commission meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers at the Newport Beach Civic Center.
Although the agenda is not online as of Thursday afternoon, however Finnigan noted that Deputy Director of Public Works Micah Martin said the staff recommendation to the Commission “will be almost the same” as before. There are 10, high-risk trees recommended for removal, she added.
However, staff will also present an option for further testing of the trees, Finnigan pointed out. The Council also asked at the Aug. 13 study session to have the level three testing option considered by PB&R.