Whispering Palms community in Rancho Santa Fe to vote on keeping or removing trees


The Whispering Palms Community Services District (CSD) board bent to community pressure and decided to delay its vote on a $339,000 bid to remove the 54 queen palm trees that mark the community’s entry and replace them with new king palms and refreshed landscaping. The item will now go to a community-wide vote, with some 1,400 residents deciding between the options of keeping the palms or updating the landscaping.

One-hundred residents had signed a petition to keep the palms as part of an awareness effort driven by Margolin & Associates, a public relations firm hired by Richard Cavanaugh, Whispering Palms resident, founder and developer of the new Palma de la Reina mixed-use center on Cancha de Golf.

The decision to delay was made at a special meeting held Aug. 9, with many in attendance objecting to the loss of the palms that one 29-year resident said are the “coat of arms” of the neighborhood.

“I understand that you’re vocal and that you care, I get it. But I honestly don’t know how big of a subset you are, I’m just not sure. But I have always agreed from the beginning that this is a big change to the community and you live here and you should have input about that,” Whispering Palms CSD Board President Nancy McElfresh said. “We listened to everybody, we hear you, we hear your concerns. Let’s get the vote, let’s get the facts on the table.”

Residents in attendance objected to McElfresh’s suggestion to keep the process moving by approving ballots on Aug. 23 and sending them out the next day. The approval of the bid and the community vote will now be delayed, meaning the project could be delayed until spring.

McElfresh said the CSD is an elected body and a vote is not required for them to make a decision. The board did hold a community meeting in March attended by over 70 residents. Three preliminary landscape designs were presented and about 70 percent of those in attendance voted for the current plan, which was the most “palm-heavy” design. McElfresh noted that about 30 percent in attendance wanted no palms at all.

Residents in attendance on Aug. 9 said that the vote in favor of the landscape design was misleading because keeping all of the palms was not given as an option. One resident said when she saw the plans with palm trees it never crossed her mind that it meant the current palms would be removed.

“It’s like murdering 54 healthy, beautiful trees that the area is named after,” she said.

“I think the palms are an iconic part of the neighborhood, I think they should be nurtured rather than removed,” echoed Doug Manatt, who is one of three candidates running for the three seats available on the Whispering Palms CSD board this fall.

Manatt said he thinks spending the $339,000 is not fiscally responsible and alternatives should be explored. “I think that if you survey the community you’ll find a different viewpoint than the previous outreach…I was not aware of your previous outreach.”

McElfresh said that the board has been concerned about replacing the trees for quite some time. The palms are expensive to maintain, costing the CSD $10,000 a year to trim and they also need to consider liability and safety issues with the 50- to 70-year-old trees. In 2014, the head of a date palm fell into the fountain and cost the CSD $8,000 to repair and remove.

“We’ve been talking about changing this median for four years so it’s not some deep dark secret or rush to judgment,” McElfresh said. ”For some people, you love them. But I will tell you there are some people out there that think they look pretty bad.”

The CSD hired three arborists who all gave conflicting reports about the health of the trees. One said 10 were diseased, another said 23 were diseased, and one done report by Mark Robinson determined that none were diseased. Robinson, who has advocated for keeping the palms, stated that his report was the most accurate because he was the only one to use a truck to go up into the air to inspect the trees.

As part of the landscape redesign, the board is also considering a separate sidewalk project. The $39,000 project will relocate the sidewalk to the east side of Cancha de Golf and plant a privet hedge by the Palma de la Reina development.

Some argued that planting the hedge was a waste of money and in direct conflict with new landscaping meant to shield the new development. Some have also called it a “spite hedge” due to long-standing disagreements with the developer, Cavanaugh.

David Feher, of Margolin & Associates, said since developing the community in 1964, Cavanaugh has made a lot of friends as well as a lot of enemies, with various boards and organizations suing him, always unsuccessfully.

Cavanaugh hired the public relations (PR) firm to help inform the community so they could take interest and be more active. He believes that they have succeeded as there was a room full of people at the Aug. 9 meeting and at a July town hall.

“Everything we have said and disseminated has been accurate and truthful information, contrary to the assertion that it was misinformation,” Feher said.

The meeting was less than civil at times with accusations lobbed toward the board and toward the public relations firm. Feher shouted down McElfresh in his attempts to have his say. He later apologized for his “lack of decorum.”

McElfresh acknowledged that the process has been difficult and the board has been “slurred more than they should’ve been,” but noted it comes with the territory.

“I’ve only been doing this for a year and a half and it has not been the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” Whispering Palms CSD Board Vice President David Nugent said, noting that at one meeting he was called a “communist.”

“What I would really like to see is the truth be put out because no matter what they say, there has been a lot of misrepresentations…,” Nugent said. “Maybe we should hire a PR firm to put our views forward and I want it to be the truth. I think the community deserves it, I think I deserve it. I’m tired of being told that I’m spiteful. That isn’t why I got involved. I got involved because I thought I could make a difference and up until about three months ago I thought maybe I was.”

The next Whispering Palms CSD board meeting is Sept. 13 at 4 p.m. at Morgan Run Club & Resort.