Protected Oaks Cut Down at Topanga Elementary

By Canyon Chronicle Staff      September 16, 2022

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Protected Oaks Cut Down at Topanga Elementary
Mature oaks play a critical role in supporting regrowth of young oaks and many additional species of flora and fauna native to this region.
In the spring of 2020, the LAUSD ordered brush clearance and tree cutting that removed mature, protected oaks and native pollinator habitats from the oak woodland trails in the upper outdoor learning area of Topanga Elementary Charter School (TECS). It’s a mystery how mature protected oaks were destroyed in 2020 without permits. Two years later, Topanga is still seeking answers. The destruction was discovered by parents and students in May 2020 who have continued to request an explanation to no avail. Now, more than two years later, the Canyon Chronicle staff hiked the trail leading to the upper campus with Alisa J. Land, one of the horrified parents of Topanga Elementary students. Observing the damage, we subsequently learned that it extended into L.A. County lands that are part of the Backbone Trail of the Santa Monica Mountains Recreational Area and part of the National Recreational Trails system.
Allegedly, the trees were not only cut down but the stumps were rooted out so there was little indication that a tree had been removed.
Land and her husband, Kent Hill persisted, writing letters to the LAUSD, asking for an explanation: “It was observed that the action by the LAUSD led to destruction of many mature live oak trees, despite the legal protected status of these oaks and their critical role in supporting regrowth of young oaks and many additional species of flora and fauna native to this region,” they wrote. “Moreover, the action destroyed hundreds of mature native coastal chaparral plants, as well as more than 650 newly planted, native pollinator support plants. These pollinator plants were part of an award received by the TECS Science Committee of 1,600 native plants from the Xerces Society for the Conservation of Invertebrates in 2018, with the aim of supporting habitat building for endangered monarch butterflies and educating students.”

Regional Planning
The Canyon Chronicle also learned that on July 2, 2020, the County of Los Angeles Department of Regional Planning issued a Notice of Violations (NOV) to Topanga Elementary and launched an investigation with the following findings:
“Regional Planning conducted an inspection at 22075 W. Topanga School Road, Topanga, CA 90290 and disclosed the following violation(s):
Development (unpermitted vegetation removal and grading) as defined in the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program has occurred on the premises without approval from the Department of Regional Planning.

1,600 native pollinator plants was part of an award by the Xerces Society for the Conservation of Invertebrates with the aim of supporting habitat building for endangered monarch butterflies and educating students.”
Development (unpermitted vegetation removal and grading) within protected H1, H1 Buffer, and H3 habitat categories has occurred on the premises without approval from the Department of Regional Planning.

Damage and/or removal of one or more protected oak trees (multiple oak trees cut and removed) has occurred on the premises without approval from the Department of Regional Planning.

Encroachment and/or endangerment of one or more oak tree “protected zone(s)” (unpermitted grading) has occurred on the premises without approval from the Department of Regional Planning.”
The Canyon Chronicle contacted Regional Planning and received the following reply: “There is an active zoning enforcement case at the property, and it is currently under investigation,” wrote Lauren De La Cruz, Regional Planner/Zoning Enforcement West Section County of Los Angeles Department of Regional Planning. “No further details can be disclosed at this time. Thank you.”

TECS students, Rebecca Land Hill and Kristian Land Hill, were desolated by the destruction of the habitat they had worked so hard to grow and nurture.
LAUSD:
Despite receiving four NOVs from Regional Planning for unpermitted tree removal, the LAUSD has not yet proposed plans for mitigation or oak replanting.
Regarding the NOVs, neither TECS Principal Kevin Kassebaum nor LAUSD District Superintendent Nick Melvoin returned our emails or phone calls. After many attempts, the Canyon Chronicle received an email from the LAUSD:
“At L.A. Unified, student and staff safety are of paramount importance,” wrote the LAUSD Spokesperson. “Throughout the year, we collaborate with the Fire Department in completing mandated clearing of brush to help reduce the potential risk of forest fires near our schools. Regrettably, the hazard clearing efforts removed some vegetation that was protected by law. L.A. Unified is a firm supporter of environmental stewardship and will work to improve its future coordination of such efforts with the community and regulators.”
After the LAUSD mentioned working with L.A. County Fire, we received the following response from Forestry Division Chief Ron Durbin:
“The references to LACoFD are simply through routine annual brush clearance consultation: provide defensible space to 200 feet from the structures or to the property line, whichever is less. Operations and Forestry always provide caveats to seek permits when performing any work on oaks,” wrote Chief Durbin. “L.A. County personnel were not involved with any clearance. The department does not work on oaks on private property unless there is an immediate life/property threat.”

The butterfly garden attracted many butterflies, among them the endangered monarch butterfly.
The only reply the Canyon Chronicle had from the LAUSD regarding the response from County Fire was one email: “At this time, we have nothing further to add beyond the statement provided,” wrote an L.A. Unified Spokesperson.

Lack of Permits
“To our knowledge, no permits were sought or obtained for cutting protected live oaks, or destruction/endangerment of native habitats,” Land and Hill wrote in a letter to the District. “Note that, according to what we’ve found as LAUSD Board of Education Office of Environmental Health and Safety (OEHS) protocols, LAUSD did not even follow their own protocols,” which state:
“All tree trimming and removal conducted on District property is required to adhere to the procedures described in the LAUSD OEHS Tree Trimming and Removal Procedure. Compliance with this Procedure will ensure that District activities will not conflict with any tree preservation policies while ensuring the protection of breeding and nesting habitat of protected birds. Written approval from the Director of OEHS, Director of Maintenance & Operations, Local District Superintendent, and School Principal is required before any protected tree is relocated or removed. For more information, please contact OEHS at (213) 241-3199 or the District Arborist at (213) 745-1422.”
Land and Hill further noted,“To our knowledge, the approval from the TECS principal Kevin Kassebaum was not obtained and we do not know if the other required authorizations were obtained.”

Topanga Elementary History
According to the Topanga Historical Society, there has been an elementary school on School Road in Topanga since the 1950s. When it was inaugurated in 1953 it was known as the “New School” because there had been an “old school” in Topanga Canyon since the 1920s. The “old school” site is part of the building that is now “Froggy’s” on 1105 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., and had been originally built in 1925 as the canyon’s elementary schoolhouse. Before that there was the “Little Red School House,” which was situated at Greenleaf Canyon and Topanga Road, educating canyon kids since way back to 1903.

Even the Butterfly Garden was affected. The beautiful wall designed by Topanga Art Tile and the “Under Construction” sign provide the only color until the garden is restored.
In 1951, when the eight acres that was to become the site of the new Topanga Elementary School was purchased, about four acres of the land was preserved as a nature reserve that is now the backbone of the science program and an integral part of the Topanga Elementary Charter. There is a wonderful outdoor amphitheater above the upper playground and a formal Nature Trail that was built in the 1980s in collaboration with parents, classes and Eagle Scouts.

Mitigation Opportunities
“After the damage was first discovered, we worked diligently with relevant members of L.A. County Regional Planning Commission, the Coastal Commission, the Fire Department, the U.S. Forestry Service, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, LAUSD and regional experts from the Topanga Town Council to determine appropriate measures to mitigate the damage and rehabilitate the area,” Land and Hill said. “We also pointed out that with appropriate mitigation, this could be an opportunity to engage school children in the rehabilitation process as a learning experience in environmental stewardship.”
Reaction from Topanga organizations, such as The Topanga Association for a Scenic Community (TASC), is general dismay.
Essential chaparral and 650 newly planted native pollinator support plants were also wiped out with the so-called brush clearing.
“TASC thinks what the school district did was terrible,” wrote TASC Chair Roger Pugliese. “The wholesale destruction of the Oak Woodland was done without regard to the Topanga community or the school.. LAUSD must be held accountable and commit to mitigating the issue.”
Removing trees whose roots help retain soil, now makes this hillside ripe for erosion when the rains come.
      September 16, 2022

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