Rebecca Lee in Jewell Park Elm Tree (copy)

Rebecca Lee sitting about 20 feet up a 40-foot tall American elm tree on Sept. 30, 2021, in Jewell Park in Pacific Grove. Her act of civil disobedience was successful in winning a reprieve from the tree being cut down that day.

A century-old American Elm tree in Jewell Park is facing the axe for a third time after the Pacific Grove City Council voted 4-3 on Wednesday, Nov. 17, to remove it for safety reasons, replacing it with five new trees elsewhere in the park. The residents who opposed cutting the tree down say they are weighing their alternatives and may take the city to court. They have five days to make a decision.

“Extreme disappointment,” was resident Patricia Purwin’s response to the vote, which she said was progress since the first vote by the Council in September, which was 6-1. Mayor Bill Peake and Councilmember Jenny McAdams changed their votes since the September meeting, joining Councilmember Luke Coletti who was the lone "no" vote in September. “We really hoped it would go our way,” she says. “It was a vast improvement but it wasn’t good enough.”

Purwin and her husband Charles Schwartz have been fighting for the tree since July, when the Public Works Department obtained a permit to cut the tree down on the basis it was a potential hazard. 

Over the last few months the Council received numerous emails and comments from residents who wanted the tree saved. Purwin, Schwartz and other residents contributed money toward an attorney and multiple arborists who submitted their own opinions countering the city arborist's opinion that the tree needed to be removed.

On the recommendation of one of the residents’ arborists, respected local arborist Frank Ono, the city conducted a resistograph test to gauge the condition of the inner core of the tree. The test includes drilling from different points into the tree. City officials say that that test proved the tree has structural issues and needs to be removed. Residents contend the city did not do the test correctly.

City Manager Ben Harvey says the city believes in the experience and knowledge of its long-time arborist, Albert Weisfuss, who reported the tree as a hazard. “Other arborists might have other opinions. We have a city arborist and he has an opinion and we believe in it.”

Rebecca Lee—the woman whose act of civil disobedience by scaling the tree and planting herself about 20 feet above the ground for a day, thereby saving it from the axe on Sept. 30—says the experience has led some residents to believe that the city’s urban forestry program is neglected and sorely in need of attention. They’re putting together a citizens' committee to aid the city “to be more sensitive to the trees.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Councilmember Amy Tomlinson made the motion to remove the tree, but added in a requirement to replace it with five new trees. Purwin calls the move a way to feel better about destroying the elm.

“They did not understand the value of this well established tree,” she says. I think they thought they were getting themselves off the hook.” An established tree, she says, is far more valuable for its contribution to the health of the surrounding environment than young trees.

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