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War of the Ficus

January 12, 2002

June Casagrande

NEWPORT BEACH -- The thing about ficus trees is that they growfast and

full and lush. That's why there are about 3,200 of them in the city.

But the other thing about ficus is their roots grow with them, tearing

up sidewalks and sewers and creating costly problems for the city and

residents alike. And though just keeping them well trimmed can inhibit

roots from growing out of control, solutions aren't as simple as all

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that.

In fact, the issue is a particularly passionate one for Newport Beach.

"This is a war on trees," one resident told City Council members at a

study session Tuesday.

City General Services Director Dave Niederhaus has offered a

three-pronged approach to stopping ficus damage: replace some, increase

trimming frequency for others and prune the roots of the rest.

"I want to see what we can do to preserve these trees," said

Councilwoman Norma Glover, noting that replacing the mature trees amounts

to an aesthetic assault on some neighborhoods.

It's an issue that could divide the council and the residents because,

beautiful as they are, the ficus' wrath is costly. They cause $50,000 to

$100,000 a year in damage to city property. Add that to the $285,534.38

paid to property owners in damage claims from 1998 to 2001, and it

amounts to trouble.

Niederhaus said about two-thirds of the city's ficus trees should be

replaced. This is in part because cost-cutting in the last 10 years has

meant reduced tree-trimming. Many trees, as a result, grew practically

unchecked, tearing apart infrastructure as their roots searched for

water.

"It never should have been allowed to get this bad," Councilman John

Heffernan said.

The study session Tuesday was just the beginning of what promises to

be a contentious issue as the council considers what to do about the

problem. The issue will next appear on a future City Council agenda. At

that time, city officials will start the controversial process of making

tough choices about this growing problem.

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