Ocean Beach Palm-Tree Suit Dismissed; City Attorney to Pursue Court Costs From FAA and San Diego Airport Authority

The FAA and the San Diego Airport Authority ordered the city of San Diego to remove the trees because their height exceeded the safety limit as required by federal law

A lawsuit against the city over the removal of palm trees in Ocean Beach has been dismissed.

Obecians John and Tracy Van de Walker, the couple behind the lawsuit, filed paperwork last weekend to drop the suit.

The situation began in 2021 when the FAA and the San Diego Airport Authority ordered the city to remove several tall palm trees because their height exceeded the safety limit as required by federal law.

San Diego Cuts Down Iconic Ocean Beach Palm Trees

The city and county of San Diego said the trees interfered with aircraft navigation.

The city notified residents of the scheduled removal, and the Van de Walkers filed the suit to keep the trees in place under the California Environmental Quality Act.

The trees, which were owned and planted by the city, were eventually removed.

In a statement sent out Thursday, City Attorney Mara Elliott said her office planned on petitioning the court to order the couple to reimburse San Diego for legal costs associated with defending the case.

“Meritless lawsuits like this one harm taxpayers by bogging down our overcrowded courts and forcing City staff and attorneys to respond to a frivolous claim,” Elliott is quoted as saying. “We will petition the court to order the Van de Walkers to reimburse the city for the costs it incurred defending itself.”

NBC 7 reached out to the city attorney’s office in an effort to determine whether such a legal move was unusual — specifically, how many cases last year resulted in the city seeking reimbursement of costs — and was told by spokeswoman Leslie Wolf Branscomb that the “city attorney’s office does not track the information you’re seeking. But we do always try to recover our costs when the city prevails in litigation.”

NBC 7 also asked, in a follow-up question, how much money the city attorney’s office was able to recover in costs in 2022 or 2021 but was told that information would not be available until next week.

Tracy Van de Walker, who bought her home at the corner of Newport Avenue and Santa Barbara Street back in 2008, told NBC 7 in November 2021 that she was outraged about the removal of the 70-80-foot Mexican fan palm that was in front of her home. Her two-story house is seemingly far from the flight path. Aviation officials, though, said the seemingly needle-thin palm trees, trimmed and healthy, posed a risk to navigation technology.

To the untrained eye, the tops of trees, located hundreds of feet below the planes taking off (and, occasionally, landing) from the runway at what was once known as Lindbergh Field appeared to be no danger to aircraft landing at the airport, which is nearly three miles to the east.

The city put a target on the trees, however, after the airport conducted a survey in 2020, something done every 5-10 years.

The city maintained that the trees, which were on the narrow ribbon between the sidewalk and street, were “within the right of way” and, therefore, it has the authority to maintain them as it sees fit.

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