Can A Tree ‘Save’ Malibu?

An unnamed source submitted this photo of a sign that was placed on a sycamore tree at the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Cross Creek Road. 

Five simple words piqued local curiosity a couple weeks ago when a sign went up dubbing a tree in the heart of Malibu’s Civic Center as “The Tree That Saved Malibu.”

No one has claimed responsibility for posting the sign, which featured large red block letters and was tethered by a metal chain to a sycamore tree located at the intersection of PCH and Cross Creek Road. The sign was taken down sometime last Thursday, but questions over its significance remain. 

It’s a tree that slow-growth supporters in Malibu have argued could “save” the Civic Center from hundreds of thousands of square feet in new commercial development.

But for developers whose commercial projects are permitted or in the process of being permitted for groundbreaking, the tree needs to go. 

“The tree is going to have to be removed,” said Don Schmitz, who represents owners of the La Paz shopping center and office complex project. The La Paz project was granted construction permits from the city in 2008 but has yet to break ground at its site near the Malibu Library. For the past several years, Schmitz has been going back and forth with Caltrans and the city on plans to widen PCH at Cross Creek, the pivotal point of contention in the battle over development in Malibu’s Civic Center.

With new commercial development comes more cars, visitors, employees and overall traffic. So, in order for commercial projects like the 112,000-square-foot La Paz shopping center and office complex, the 38,000-square-foot Whole Foods in the Park project and the 275,000-square-foot Rancho Malibu Hotel to be built, multiple studies have found that the intersection of PCH and Cross Creek needs to be widened to accommodate a dedicated right-turn lane from westbound PCH onto Cross Creek.

“All of the other shopping centers and office buildings being proposed for the Civic Center area are piggy-backing on the La Paz traffic mitigation,” said local activist Hans Laetz.

The easiest way to widen it, traffic studies suggest, is by widening PCH on the southern side of the intersection toward the Malibu Lagoon. That would mean expanding onto Caltrans property and removing the sycamore tree in question, which is protected as a native species by city code. The infamous tree is located on the southeast corner of PCH and Cross Creek (at the Malibu Lagoon entrance, across from the Shell Gas Station). While sycamores are protected native plants under Malibu City Code, that does not render them infallible. 

“The code doesn’t say you can’t remove a native tree, it says you should avoid it if possible,” Planning Director Joyce Parker-Bozylinski told The Malibu Times. “If you have to [remove one], then you have to mitigate it 10 to 1” by planting 10 of the same species either on—or off—site.

But those who take issue with many of the projects being planned for the Civic Center disagree. Laetz argues that the state would never allow for the highway to be expanded toward the Malibu Lagoon, especially since the tree blocks views of the Shell station from the lagoon and Surfrider Beach. He also believes it would be illegal to expand the highway toward the lagoon since its view and environmental repercussions were not studied in the La Paz environmental impact report (EIR).

“Even if Schmitz gets permission to cut down the tree, we’re in court in five minutes to block it because there’s no EIR,” Laetz said. “The tree is a visible barrier between that Shell station and the lagoon. When you stand in the lagoon today…you’re isolated. It’s not a gas station, it’s not a shopping center. It’s wilderness. That tree is so important. It’s so important that State Parks wouldn’t let Caltrans take it out.”

Nonetheless, Schmitz said Cross Creek and PCH is “a death trap” for pedestrians, bikers and drivers and Caltrans has sought to improve it for years.

“Even if there wasn’t any development in the Civic Center, Caltrans would still be looking to improve this intersection,” he said. 

When asked to comment, Craig Sap, the Angeles District Superintendent for State Parks, said he was aware of the idea of the tree being able to prevent development projects, but that it was up to Caltrans. He did not allude to State Parks taking a stance for or against removal of the tree.

Kelly Markham, a Caltrans spokesperson, said Caltrans met with La Paz representatives last week to discuss latest plans for the intersection but that no permits have been issued for the road project.

Ultimately, any plans to widen that intersection must be approved by the city’s Planning Commission and are appealable to the City Council. The city is currently examining an application from Schmitz, which would come before city officials once it’s deemed complete.

Parker-Bozylinski said it will probably be at least three months until the road-widening blueprints come before the Planning Commission.