Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

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Credit: Daniel Dreifuss
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This story was originally published by the Santa Barbara Independent and is reproduced here in partnership with Edhat.


By Tyler Hayden of The Independent

“Shocked.” “Frustrated.” “Very uncomfortable.” “Just really, really annoyed.” Those were the sentiments expressed Tuesday evening by the Santa Barbara City Council as they voted through gritted teeth to deny a Lomita Road homeowner’s petition to remove a large deodar cedar tree from her front yard.

The council’s issue wasn’t with the homeowner or her request, however. Marilyn Goldman had followed the application process to a T and made a compelling case for why the tree should go. Instead, their intense displeasure lay with an appointed member of the city’s Street Tree Advisory Committee, who lobbied and conspired behind the scenes to save the cedar and allegedly broke open government laws in the process.

“Dishonest.” “Unfair.” “Arrogant.” That was how councilmembers described the conduct of Bob Cunningham, who has since resigned from the committee and triggered an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Goldman, who suffers from painful spinal stenosis and limited mobility, submitted her application August 3, arguing that the 70-something-year-old tree and its bulbous roots made accessing her driveway and walkway difficult. Goldman said she hated to remove the healthy tree, as she’s lived at the house for 35 years and always given it good care, but she now worried about tripping over the uneven ground. She offered to plant another tree in its place.

The Street Tree Advisory Committee (STAC) voted 5-0 to deny Goldman’s petition, countering she could make accessibility improvements to her front yard without sacrificing one of the neighborhood’s finest specimens. The committee’s recommendation then went to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which deadlocked at 3-3. After 60 days, per city rules, the tied vote defaulted to an approval to take out the cedar. Over two dozen of Goldman’s neighbors, citing concerns for her health, had written the Commission in support of her.

It was then that Cunningham, a landscape architect who’d served on STAC for 14 years and still currently sits on the city’s Architectural Board of Review, took it upon himself to file an appeal of the Commission’s approval in an apparent conflict of interest and violation of government ethics rules. Cunningham privately notified the other STAC members of his intention via email, secretly strategized with city staff, and even started a collection to help him pay the $300 fee. Unrelated tree removal appeals were also discussed.

No one on the email chains, including Nathan Slack, the city’s urban forest superintendent, spoke up. As if those optics weren’t bad enough, Cunningham also waved off Goldman’s petition as “an old lady’s health issues” and suggested her request was simply a matter of “convenience.”

In her comments Tuesday, Goldman ― a bereavement counselor at Hospice of Santa Barbara and clinical supervisor for the Rape Crisis Center ― took Cunningham to task. “I am disappointed that the city appoints citizen advisors who openly dismiss and deride fellow citizens by conflating accessibility, a civil right, with convenience,” she said. “This is a personal safety issue.” As to the “old lady” comment, Goldman fumed. “That’s a lot of -isms ― ageism, ableism, sexism ― in one sentence.”

Goldman also blasted the process by which the appeal reached the City Council, wondering how its members could even be considering it if the road getting there was so pockmarked with impropriety. “How can homeowners be expected to follow the city’s rules and regulations when members of the committees, before which homeowners appear, don’t?” she asked, before turning her attention to Slack. “Why is city staff permitted to behave in dishonest ways with total lack of transparency?”

Cunningham attempted to defend his comments. “I understand how Ms. Goldman has been offended by what I said, but I meant no offense,” he began. “I am 75 years old. I have many old friends, many friends who are old, and many friends who are old ladies. My best friend is an old lady, and we’ve been married for 34 years.” Cunningham, however, also doubled down on his insistence that Goldman was only considering her own comfort. “Essentially, Ms. Goldman’s request is based solely on convenience, disregarding the benefits the tree provides to the neighborhood and larger urban forest.”

Cunningham admitted his back-door dealings were inappropriate. “I absolutely made mistakes, and with regard to the Fair Political Practices Commission, I may end up paying a penalty, for which I will be sorry, I’m sure,” he said. “But I’m not sorry for pursuing this appeal, because I believe it has merit and I do not want to drop it.” As he fell on his sword, he made one last comment about Goldman and her health. “Removing the tree won’t make her pain go away,” he said.

Councilmember Michael Jordan bristled at the statement. “Maybe not,” he said, “but it would potentially allow a 66-year-old woman to extend living independently at her house.” Nevertheless, Jordan continued, he couldn’t in good conscience vote to remove the tree as he, like the majority of the other councilmembers, didn’t think Goldman had sufficiently explored other ways of making her front yard and driveway more navigable. During site visits, staff had suggested she could prune the cedar’s roots, repave her front walkway, widen the driveway, and so on.

Still, Jordan said, he resented the way certain city representatives had conducted themselves during the appeal process. Jordan and the other councilmembers never referred to Slack or Cunningham by name, but it was clear to whom they were referring. “You have a staff member talking to people behind the scenes,” he said, referencing potential violations of the Brown Act, which prohibits public officials from discussing legislative issues in private, “and you have an appointed city member acting in a condescending and tone-deaf manner toward Ms. Goldman and her predicament. … This is really just a mess we find ourselves in.”

Councilmembers Friedman, Harmon, and Sneddon and Mayor Cathy Murillo echoed Jordan, explaining they harbored “strong concerns” about how the appeal was handled but still believed Goldman should explore alternative remedies. “There are options for the resident to live there and for the tree to remain,” Murillo said. Nevertheless, she said, “Shame that has been brought on the process and the city. We’re supposed to have integrity and conduct ourselves with integrity.” Murillo promised inquiries would be made and appropriate actions taken.

Councilmembers Oscar Gutierrez and Alejandra Gutierrez (no relation) voted in Goldman’s favor and empathized with her ill feelings toward the city. “I want to apologize for this entire experience you’ve had to go through,” Oscar said. “We will address the problems that have been talked about tonight.”

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RHS Dec 10, 2020 10:11 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Pretty hard to chose a side here. IF we accept that the city/public has a right to decide what sort of trees/plants you are allowed to grow or remove in your lot THEN the process seems generally OK. Look at the property and you will see that the small house has an ancient driveway built in the day when two parallel cement paths were used. A more modern reconstruction of this would seemingly allow abatement of the problems the owner notes. It also seems that the city has replaced the sidewalk in front of the home to deal with probable root damage. IF we say the city/public has no business deciding this then the question is moot. I suppose under that scenario the owner could remove all plantings and simply pave over the front yard. That doesn't seem good for the neighbors and community. My suspicion is that the tree, which is huge, has simply overwhelmed the house and the owner would like more light and a better look.

Bird Dec 10, 2020 12:28 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

RHS, the City does have jurisdiction over removal of a tree that is in the front setback of a property --- and the distance for that setback varies depending on the zoning and the house itself, whether or not two stories. The owner wanted it removed because it was difficult for her to move her trash barrels to the street; the street tree advisory committee voted 5-0 in favor of the appeal and to not allow the removal; the parks/rec as a whole tie - voted. This before the council was a "quasi-judicial" hearing; had it been a judicial hearing, the tie vote would have meant that the underlying vote supporting the appeal would have prevailed. In Santa Barbara, it means that the appeal failed. Probably, imho, what should happen is that the ordinance needs to be changed so that a tie vote does not overturn a majority vote of the committee that is knowledgeable about trees.

RHS Dec 10, 2020 04:32 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Bird, I know that there is an ordinance on the books that gives the city power over front yard trees. That doesn't mean it is desirable. I would even venture that the tree in question here was growing long before that law was enacted. I doubt that the people who planted it (and it wasn't the city I think it safe to say) never imagined that they couldn't remove it when it became a nuisance.

Resident Dec 11, 2020 11:26 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

The underlying issue is whether or not the City should be able to dictate to private property owners what they can or can't do with their private property. The City doesn't maintain that tree; the property owner does. The tree isn't in the public right-of-way; it's on private property. We have become complacent about the erosion of our individual freedom and have allowed the government at all levels to assume more and more dictatorial powers.

Carey2 Dec 11, 2020 01:40 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Man, have I been though this one. The City in their ultimate wisdom in the 50's planted Brazilian pepper trees in the strips because of cost. They are illegal in four state and can't even be transported though them. If you think the bottle brush and the jacarandas are dirty? the Brazilian peppers, year around drop flowers, leaves, pepper corns and sap. Once a year this 50 ft tree lets go of a branch of up to a ton. This will someday total a car and maybe kill someone. The roots have broken the sidewalk for the forth time now and the sidewalk was re poured by the city. Newshawk came out and did an article on this. Parks and urban forest along with the City Council and Mayor also viewed it in person. My sewer outfall also clogs up every 6 month and has to be cleared, the roots system is very large. I had it camera-ed and put on a disk. I paid the fees and went before the city council to get this liability removed. Good luck, Parks and Urban forest were arguing the opposite chair. They have their little feftom within the City and are very powerful. I argued the tree was a liability to myself and the City. Urban forest went on about the benefits of the tree canopy In SB. The council split and the mayor decided against me. They also told me I would be fined five thousand dollars if I decided to kill the tree by any means. Can't fight city hall. Two council men came up to me and apologized, and as I was the last case of the night, they took me across the street, bought me a drink. They told me I should run for city council. The tree remains. Hows that for a story.

a-1607731423 Dec 11, 2020 04:03 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Bird, The City only has jurisdiction over trees in the front setback area because they have decreed that they have that control in the ordinances that they pass. We have allowed the bureaucracy to assume that control over our lives and things like the current private property issue are the result. Some of those controls are good and fair; others are rather much overreach that have gone unchallenged.

Eggs Ackley Dec 12, 2020 02:57 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

While I’m sure you are serious, you are woefully myopic and appear to be incognizant of history, community identity through design, and general urban planning principles. I suggest you consider a move to that bastion of liberty: Hollister Ranch and try exercising your individual freedoms there.

Bird Dec 10, 2020 10:24 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

This is SO wrong! One commissioner went way beyond the bounds of how he should have behaved --- and that is not a true picture of the entire appeal process at all! In fact, having watched (but not participated in) many of these appeals, they are detailed-oriented and thoughtful, working hard to balance the rights of the public AND the urban forest we have in Santa Barbara and the rights of the homeowner, noting that owners can move; trees can not.

In this case the really disgraceful thing was how two councilmembers refused to follow the law which required certain conditions to be met before the appeal could be rejected and the 70-year-old tree removed. The other 5 councilmembers, all expressing sympathy for the homeowner, but pointing out she had options to move her trash barrels (the cause of the request) including arranging with Marborg on its weekly work to empty the barrels close to the house, as they do all over town.

What was shocking was how Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez, especially, seemed to fail to understand that her role was not to opine and vote on how she felt for the homeowner but to apply the clearly-written ordinance to the facts.

PitMix Dec 10, 2020 10:36 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Large trees on small lots are a nuisance and can cause $1000s in sewer line replacement and foundation damage. I wonder how many people will be foolish enough to follow the mandated process given this homeowner's experience? I wonder if any of the City people that violated proper procedures will receive any punishment? The lesson to me is - don't let any tree on my lot get big enough to trigger these kinds of assessments.

DBD Dec 10, 2020 11:04 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Having worked with the city on a project or two, I can tell you the experience was disgusting. I feel for Mrs Goldman. We live here, invest in our communities, and get treated like a piece of wet garbage. I wish more people had the opportunity to experience how cruel our city can be, maybe then we could have enough people speak up and trigger some change. I am in favor of keeping the tree but the this was handled is just wrong.

SBTownie Dec 10, 2020 11:48 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

While I personally agree that this tree should not have been removed, I have dealt firsthand with Mr. Cunningham in hearings relating to architectural issues in town. One hearing I was at I heard him audibly complaining to his fellow committee-members that he had to be there that day. I thought how sad it was that a public servant who is not in any way compelled or forced to be on any of these committees clearly loathed his work so much. He refused to acknowledge or look at me during on hearing when I spoke in favor of a popular local issue which ultimately was decided against his vote. I understand having strong feelings about the look and feel of our town. I do, too. But he has been disrespectful to the public in numerous instances that I have witnessed and as soon as I read this article, not even recalling his name, I had a sense it would be about him. I google imaged him and I was right. Out of decency, he should resign from the ABR. His lack of professionalism is not up for debate and our citizens deserve better.

ZeroHawk Dec 10, 2020 12:41 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

I have also had run ins with this jerkface...like planting a fresh sapling in front of my house, in a small vacant 3x3 square. A Peruvian tree that will reach upwards of 200 feet. 3 years later, it has blocked out all sun on my front lawn, killing parts of the lawn and all of my garden. I called to have them cut the 15 foot long branch that was encroaching on our property. NOPE. Called again, it's now about to touch my roof, you cut it or i cut it. Simple. It touched my roof, i cut the damned branch off. This guy and the entire "tree committee" are a waste of our time and tax dollars. The city council during a spell in the 1950s is responsible for planting all of these non native trees in town. My neighborhood suffers from these trees. Sap dropping on us, our cars and lawns, roots destroying plumbing and sidewalks that go unrepaired until someone is injured and sues. Serious, the leadership in town just sucks right now across the board. Cathy and the entire city council need to go. Especially Guitierrez...that guys a jerk

Always_Running Dec 10, 2020 11:54 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

I’ve been dealing with the same issue. A root cracked the cray sewer line but the city won’t allow the tree to be removed, due to close proximity to the sewer lateral repairs, we need to remove the tree bot is might slide into the hole. Instead the city prefers minut amount of sewer to leak in the soil below the city sidewalk and my driveway.

PitMix Dec 10, 2020 12:34 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

Lash is redoing the sidewalk corners in my neighborhood, and when they had trouble with a bottlebrush tree, they just cut it down. No permits, no appeals, no nothing. Do what you want with your tree and tell them you are just following the City's example. If the City wants to plant trees on top of your sewer lateral, the least they could do is pay for the damage it causes.

Yeti Dec 10, 2020 01:22 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

When the government can control all aspects of the individuals life including what they can do on their own property, it begins to go in the direction of Fascism. Remember when the local planning commission/ARB tried to strike down the landscape plan and essentially penalize Chick Filet, as a result of the political/social views of the corporate owner?? Our local government wields way too much power and thinks way too much of themselves. You can see it in many different ways locally. This is ever so clear in trying to penalize a handicapped woman that needs to remove a massive tree from HER tiny front yard. Pathetic !

Ahchooo Dec 10, 2020 01:37 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

I am adamantly pro-tree, especially healthy, mature trees. I hope Ms Goldman can find solutions that make her life easy despite the tree. I’d contribute to a fund to help her repair the walkway, etc. I certainly agree that the city process needs to be transparent and fair according to the laws.

40900 Dec 10, 2020 01:46 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

That guy has always been a tool. He made sure my proposal was denied also. The tree was such an obvious nuisance ALL my neighbors wanted it gone, no questions asked. But removal and replacement was denied. So, I just "trimmed" my tree..again and again and again...and never told anybody. There is an appropriate tree in its place now. I also planted some saplings from my old tree in "strategic" places, you know, to thank Cunningham and crew.

a-1607647697 Dec 10, 2020 04:48 PM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

The tree is on private property. Just cut it down. We pay the salaries of city council. In return they attempt to micromanage our lives. This city has big problems, e.g. a dying downtown core, rampant homelessness, fires along highway 101 and railway tracks, people suffering through joblessness because of covid. We need to elect leaders who are capable of setting proper priorities and solving real problems.

dukemunson Dec 11, 2020 09:02 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

It’s unfortunate but it’s the way you have to do it in a town like sb. There is a reason people cut down small oaks on ranches and farms as soon as possible... once it crosses the size threshold it owns your property for the next 100 years.... it’s prudent (and yeah sad) to get rid of it while you can !

PitMix Dec 11, 2020 07:46 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

All I'm saying is that they exposed some roots while redoing the curb, and cut it down the same day. Are you saying the city arborist ran right out to assess the tree and gave their approval? Did they ask the rest of us how we felt about the loss of this tree? Have they replanted anything where it used to be? Tree was huge and had plenty of foliage and didn't look any different that our other bottlebrushes. Seems like you are just speculating what happened.

willow Dec 11, 2020 07:46 AM
Tree Removal Request Exposes Rotten Underbelly of Santa Barbara’s Appeal Process

This is not about the tree - it's about Cunningham and others like him who think that because they are on a "committee" they can make up news rules to suit their "decisions". If we cannot practice democracy in this small town, there is just no hope.
Also - in regard to the tree - perhaps the city arborist can go have a look and help the homeowner come up with a workable plan.

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