Rush to cut

Neighbors stand up for street trees on Enloe’s chopping block

Donna Wallace stands in front of a line of trees near Enloe Medical Center that may have been removed if citizens hadn’t intervened.

Donna Wallace stands in front of a line of trees near Enloe Medical Center that may have been removed if citizens hadn’t intervened.

Photo by Ken Smith

Despite his commitment to championing the city’s urban forest, Chico Tree Advocates founder Charles Withuhn grudgingly accepts that some trees on property owned by Enloe Medical Center will be removed as the hospital improves its main campus and installs an accompanying park in the Avenues neighborhood. But last Tuesday (May 2), something appeared to be amiss.

“Enloe has cut about 30 trees [on their property] in the last few weeks, so it’s common to see all the heavy equipment out on Fifth Avenue,” said Withuhn, who lives near the hospital. “Then I realized they were cutting down a city street tree—a big, beautiful sycamore.”

The sycamore stood next to a smaller tree, which also had been reduced to a stump that day. Withuhn stopped to speak to workers from North Valley Tree Service, who Withuhn said informed him that they would be removing more street trees on Sixth Avenue that week. Concerned about whether the removals were permitted, he called the city and members of the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association (CANA).

It turns out Withuhn was right to question the removal. Erik Gustafson, manager of the Chico’s Public Works Department, said city staff had been inundated with calls from concerned citizens after the two trees were cut, and confirmed no permit had been issued. City staff visited Enloe Medical Center the next morning—May 3—to deliver a cease and desist order to prevent further removals.

The hospital has copped to the unpermitted cutting. Facilities Director Bill Seguine said Enloe complied with the order to halt tree removals at the project site and does not plan to remove any more street trees unless directed to by the city. He said the hospital was operating under the belief that the 2004 EIR for expansion called for the removal of the street trees. Gustafson countered that the EIR simply states that the trees may be impacted by the development, and does not require removal.

“If the city doesn’t require us to remove the trees, then we don’t want to remove them,” Seguine said.

The tree removals were part of an ongoing $110 million expansion at the hospital known as the Century Project. It was approved in 2006, but CANA—which represents residents in the area—has long been negotiating with Enloe regarding how to best mitigate negative impacts of the expansion on the surrounding neighborhood. Those measures are outlined in the development agreement, with the most significant being the creation of a park.

Those negotiations have been contentious at times, but progress was reported in the CN&R in January, when CANA and Enloe representatives came to a tentative agreement on the park’s size and shape.

One thing some residents were unhappy about in recent designs was the addition of a parking lot, which became part of the park plan in 2015, when Enloe acquired another piece of property in the middle of the project area, at 226 W. Fifth Ave. The two street trees cut down last week were located in front of that property.

Upon further scrutiny, residents learned that several additional street trees, lining Arcadian Avenue, were slated for removal. CANA board member Donna Wallace led the CN&R on a walk around the project area earlier this week, pointing out about a dozen street trees marked with white X’s. She also indicated dozens more trees within the future park site that have been—or will be—cut down.

Chico Municipal Code calls for fines of up to $5,000 for cutting down street trees without a permit, and mitigation measures must be met when trees on private or public property are removed for development.

“It seems as though Enloe got ahead of themselves and believed these removals were approved based on the development agreement, but that’s not the case,” said Brendan Vieg, the city’s principal planner. “There needs to be some more communication and some paperwork done first. There’s a lot of moving parts involved.”

He elaborated on remaining requirements for the project, saying no use permits have been approved for the parking lot or park structures. Furthermore, parcel lines need to be modified before the project can continue.

Vieg also said the city conducts a full inventory of trees that will be displaced by development before they are removed—including those on the developer’s property—and Enloe has already cut down dozens. He said fines are one option the city has for the two street trees removed last week, but that city staff will meet with hospital representatives this week to discuss remedies and get the project moving forward legitimately.

“There were misunderstandings with the city, and in the confusion we thought that we had all the proper approvals,” Seguine said.

For Withuhn’s part, he’s glad he stopped and inquired, noting that all of the marked trees may have been cut down had he and other citizens not been paying attention. He also gave props to the city for taking swift action.

“In all my years of being involved politically, this is the first time I’ve seen the city step up to protect its trees.”