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Whispering Palms town hall in Rancho Santa Fe raises awareness of plan to remove 54 palms

A rendering of the revamped landscaping plan for the Whispering Palms median project.
Courtesy photo
A rendering of the revamped landscaping plan for the Whispering Palms median project. Courtesy photo

A “Keep our Palms” town hall meeting was held July 20 at Morgan Run Club & Resort as some residents rally to convince the Whispering Palms Community Services District (CSD) not to take down the 54 “iconic” palm trees that mark the entrance to their neighborhood.

The CSD had previously approved a plan to remove the queen palms they believe are “aging and diseased” along Cancha de Golf, replacing the 40-65-foot high queen palms with a revamped landscaping plan for a median project that includes 15-16-foot king palms and some peppermint willow trees.

Whispering Palms’ original developer and current resident Richard Cavanaugh is funding the effort to keep the palms. Cavanaugh hired Margolin and Associates to share information about the CSD’s plans and so far 80 residents have signed a petition asking the board to reconsider the plan, arguing that their namesake trees provide a level of “maturity, grace and elegance” for the community.

“They are an iconic part of our community and it’s important that these trees last a long time,” said Bill Haynor, who represented the sole dissenting vote on the CSD board. “If a few trees are diseased, remove those. But we don’t have to remove 54 trees.”

Bids on the median project are due back on July 30 and the Whispering Palms CSD is scheduled to meet on Aug. 9 at 4 p.m. in the Morgan Run clubhouse to vote on the bids. If approved, they intend to begin planting the new design in October.

The CSD has held over 20 public meetings to discuss the plan, including a “well-noticed” community forum in March attended by 70 people. Chuck Duffy, general manager of the CSD, said the intent of the median project was simply to update the landscaping.

“It was to make it look newer and fresher, there’s nothing nefarious behind it,” Duffy said.

Kathy McHenry, who has been on the CSD since 1996, said the board has been working on plans to update and beautify the community for over three years. In 2014, one of the palms threw its head into the fountain and it cost $8,000 out of the budget for clean-up and repair — McHenry said that’s when they started looking at the concept of removing the aging palms.

“The trees were planted in 1964 by the developer but at the time they weren’t babies, they were tall,” McHenry said.

McHenry said queen palms cost $5,000 twice a year to trim, costing the CSD $10,000 a year. King palms, the replacement palms in the plan, are self-cleaning.

Per the CSD’s plans, the king palms will be “younger, healthier, self-cleaning and more attractive than the existing queen palms.” The turf in the medians will also be replaced with drought-tolerant shrubs.

“After 20 years on the board and three years working on the project, I personally believe that the community would be safer and better-looking and property values would be enhanced by the beautiful rendering we have approved,” McHenry said.

Also included in the CSD’s revamp of the Whispering Palms entrance is relocating the sidewalk along the west side of Cancha de Golf and planting a hedge — they have received a bid of $39,000 for the project. Some residents have called this project a “spite hedge” due to long-standing disagreements between the CSD and the developer of Palma de la Reina, Richard Cavanaugh.

The new median project is out to bid but is estimated to cost $334,000. As of June 30, the district had $860,000 in reserves.

Haynor said he believes it is fiscally irresponsible to spend down the reserves on projects such as these. “I’m glad to see you all here, I’ve been the lone voice of opposition and taken a lot of heat,” Haynor told a crowd of at least 50 people who spilled out onto the Morgan Run patio. “My feeling is there hasn’t been enough community participation of what the project is all about.”

As the CSD began work on the landscape plan, they engaged three arborists to study the trees and determine their health.

One of the arborists, Mark Robinson, spoke at the July 20 town hall to reiterate his belief that the trees are not diseased. He submitted a 38-page report to the CSD after examining and “sounding” every tree up and down the trunk using a boom truck. He said the other arborists did not go into the air and instead conducted their evaluations from the ground.

He said he was “shocked” that the CSD had decided to cut all of the trees down based on the findings of the other arborists’ reports.

“They are not diseased, they are not aging out and have decades and decades to grow,” Robinson said. “These are heritage trees, they are 48 years old and should be shown some respect. It doesn’t make any sense to take healthy, beautiful established trees and cut them to the ground.”

McHenry said while she had read Robinson’s report, she said none of the arborists would stake their reputations on determining the palms were safe.

Residents at the town hall’s opinions on the trees were mixed — some were just looking to learn the reasons behind the CSD’s decision, some still held animosity toward the developer, many did not want to have to lose all of the trees and hoped to convince the board to keep the palms while still modernizing the look.

One newer resident said she was happy to see the renderings of the new plan as when she moved into Whispering Palms two years ago, she thought the landscaping was some of the worst compared to neighboring communities in Rancho Santa Fe, Del Sur and 4S Ranch.

“I think the new plan is modern and uplifting, it keeps it updated,” she said. “I don’t think it’s beautiful to look at currently; I would like to see it look prettier coming into the community, more up to date.”