William Hicks had never cried over a tree before, but this was no ordinary tree, this large, gnarled Indian laurel fig stretching for the sky. Hicks and Elise, his wife, had once stopped in awe at the base of the tree in Mariners Village, a shaded, 43-year-old development at the tip of Marina del Rey, which thousands of people and many coastal birds call home. They loved trees, but never like this.

So when William saw Mariners Village maintenance workers sawing the tree into chunks in October, he was overcome, and bled his feelings into a long, somewhat sappy poem, “Eulogy for a Tree”:

Forty years to get that size

I couldn't believe my eyes

It was being butchered by several guys

It was part of a larger pattern. As redevelopment steamrolls its way into this hard-to-access community nestled next to the Pacific, some of Marina del Rey's trees are being mown down as if they're in a Brazilian rainforest.


Elise and William Hicks mourn the stately trees that already have been destroyed.; Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Elise and William Hicks mourn the stately trees that already have been destroyed.; Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Opponents say it's not only a community tragedy but it's also destroying the habitat of some magnificent coastal birds.

In December, county contractors were busy near Mariners Village clearing a leafy flood-control basin — a tree-lined pond known as Oxford Lagoon, which is home to coastal birds — of all but a few of its 650 trees and shrubs.

Two miles away, Marina Admiralty Company is tweaking its 10-year, $200 million development plan for Mariners Village. In a bid to dress up the sleepy enclave and persuade the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to renew its underlying land lease, Marina Admiralty wants to chop down just about every single tree — by residents' count, more than 1,000 trees standing in the way of progress. Dozens of other trees already have been uprooted by projects around the marina, opponents say.

Marina Admiralty Company plans to install a waterside promenade, more than three times the existing commercial space, 92 boat slips and a public dock with spots for kayaks and Ski-Doos, plus navigable paths for bikes and pedestrians. This aligns perfectly with the supervisors' grand vision for Marina del Rey: a pretty, accessible, multiuse community that would, not coincidentally, pull in far more paying visitors.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has co-signed the Million Trees L.A. Initiative, a nearly decade-old pledge by ex-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to expand the sun-baked city's urban shade canopy, a sustainable practice widely viewed as important to cutting greenhouse gases.

But the marina is Los Angeles County, not city, territory, and patches of Marina del Rey could go years without mature tree cover after the slated destruction.

“I guess the land is too valuable for invaluable trees,” William Hicks says.

Clearing the woodsy pond at Oxford Lagoon, as well as Mariners Village, of older trees and shrubs conforms to the County Board of Supervisors' vision for Marina del Rey. In a move to help the county's bottom line, Supervisor Don Knabe aims to compete in the housing-business boom seen in nearby and rapidly gentrifying Venice.

So far, the county has approved only a broad mission statement for the marina; no specific plans. But Knabe, who represents this part of the coast, argues, “It's been in sun, water and sand for 50 years — we're just polishing the crown jewel.”

Some problems created by the county's plan can't be undone, however. In general, tearing out trees ruins existing soil biodiversity, according to Jerome Smith, a certified arborist. He says the drought-tolerant plants that are touted by developers and county officials make no sense in what is essentially a man-made marsh.

“The claim that you've got to plant native species in an artificial environment is totally asinine,” Smith says.

You'd be hard-pressed to find another planned community in L.A. like Mariners Village. The 981-unit, 23-acre development looks nothing like the boxy condos that define the Marina; think a hunting lodge built by Peter Pan for the Lost Boys' retirement.

Theme park–quality streams, lined with cement, bubble under nearly every balcony. Tall bamboo stalks, sturdy trees and swimming pools surround a lagoon overshadowed by a 70-foot-tall crow's nest accessible by a winding staircase.

The ambiance is a hallmark of such “residential resorts” built by Marina Admiralty Company, explains Michael Sondermann, the group's spokesman. “The typical 'era' apartments aren't architectural wonders,” he says. “Material landscaping, when you open the doors, hides a lot of those sins.”

But these for-rent apartments need a down-to-the-studs revamp to deal with issues such as asbestos in the stucco and old clay sewer pipes. So the trees must go, Sondermann says, to be replaced by native, coastal trees.

According to Sondermann, a county policy requires Marina Admiralty to make a substantial economic investment, in return for approval to renew its long-term lease. Knabe won't confirm or deny as much, saying only that the deal the board struck merely needed to be fair.

Hicks and his cohort are crying foul. They see the trees as integral to Marina del Rey's delicate ecosystem. It's where herons — “our charismatic megafauna” — bring bits of thatch from neighboring meadows of the Ballona Wetlands to build nests, says longtime activist Marcia Hanscom.

She and other critics see the Board of Supervisors' grasp of the situation as, “?'Oh, just change out the wallpaper.' … They don't appreciate that we have nature sustaining us here.”

Impassioned residents gave five hours of testimony at a “design review” board meeting in March 2014, to hear Elise Hicks tell it, winning a unanimous vote for a redesign to save many of the trees. One resident at the meeting shouted that the Mariners Village design “looks like a prison,” according to the Argonaut newspaper.

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Credit: Photo by Ted Soqui

Sondermann notes that Marina del Rey's state-certified land use plan requires tree-for-tree replacement, and he insists each tree will be replaced with a drought-tolerant tree. But the fine print submitted to the county doesn't actually promise one-to-one tree replacement.

An Environmental Impact Report now will determine if any of the hundreds of trees at risk need saving.

But outspoken residents see bad signs in the tea leaves. In November 2013, workers at Mariners Village trimmed tree branches without the right permits, downing 11 bird nests in violation of state developer guidelines in the so-called Local Coastal Plan. Sondermann calls it an honest mistake.

The company is appealing for approval after the fact, but residents can't get over what seems like a streak of hypocrisy.

It would be easy, and perhaps cheaper, to renovate the Oxford Lagoon flood basin and Mariners Village without harming the mature trees that share the space, the opponents say.

“When you rip out an old tree and regrade the soil, you're destroying all the microorganisms in the soil,” says Smith, the arborist. For example, he gets calls for aid from owners of newish homes, flabbergasted that their newish trees are dying — thanks to graded dirt.

Beyond its intrinsic value to nature, a mature tree adds $10,000 to a home's value, Smith adds.

So why is tree-trashing still on docket? It depends who you ask.

“I honestly can't tell if the underlying problem is ignorance or the corrupting influence of money,” says Marina del Rey resident Kathryn Campbell, a well-connected Democrat critical of the tree-felling plan.

The dozens of people in the community simply “didn't want change,” Knabe says. “People talk like we're randomly going out there with axes and hacking down the trees. That's not the case at all.”

Reach Asher Klein at asherhklein@gmail.com. Follow Matt Fleming on Twitter @mattfleming1181.

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