A Beverly Hills real estate investor pleaded no contest Wednesday to ordering the felling of 27 oaks on a lot he owns in Thousand Oaks, ending the most serious case of illegal destruction of the stately trees that gave the city its name.
Houshang Beroukhim, 43, entered the plea, the legal equivalent of a plea of guilty, in Ventura County Municipal Court under an agreement worked out between his lawyer and the Thousand Oaks city attorney's office.
Judge Steven Hintz placed Beroukhim on three years unsupervised probation, fined him $1,000, required a restitution payment of $20,000 to the city for oak preservation and, as a punishment, prohibited Beroukhim from developing the property for 30 months.
Edward Lassak, 63, of Thousand Oaks, a friend of Beroukhim who was accused of directing the cutting, pleaded guilty to two counts of aiding and abetting the trees' removal. He was fined $105 after 25 other counts were dropped under the plea bargain.
Provisions of Law
A Thousand Oaks law enacted in 1970 makes cutting or radically pruning an oak without a permit a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and six months in jail.
In recent years, the City Council has been reluctant to approve development plans that require many trees to be cut. As a condition for getting building permits, those who leveled trees without a permit were often fined or required to plant new oaks.
The destruction of the trees on Beroukhim's land last November provoked an angry response from city officials, who vowed to prosecute those responsible with a zeal usually reserved for felony cases.
Before the Beroukhim case, the city had prosecuted just four people for illegally cutting down oaks, each case involving only one tree, according to Don LaVoie, the city's senior code enforcement officer.
Preserving oaks as a natural treasure is a popular local cause in Thousand Oaks. Voters who approved the city's incorporation in 1964 overwhelmingly chose the name "Thousand Oaks" over "Conejo."
Pleased city officials Wednesday hailed the plea bargain as a signal of the city's resolve to protect its oaks, which actually number far more than 1,000.
"It's our heritage," declared Mayor Alex T. Fiore. "People should think twice before they indiscriminately chop down an oak tree. They should realize it can be very punitive for those who embark on such an endeavor."
The oaks were brought down on a two-acre, commercially zoned lot owned by Beroukhim in the Westlake Village section of Thousand Oaks. The land, bordered by an office building and an auto repair shop, lies between Duesenberg Drive and Los Robles Road, about 500 feet south of Thousand Oaks Boulevard.
The 27 trees destroyed ranged in diameter from four to 24 inches, city officials said. Three oaks were left standing, including a massive tree believed to be more than 400 years old with a trunk five feet in diameter and branches spreading 65 feet.
According to Deputy City Atty. Michael D. Martello, Beroukhim hired a Los Angeles gardening and tree removal company to clear the lot. Martello declined to speculate on Beroukhim's motive, but said Beroukhim watched as the trees were cut.
"They went in there and butchered them badly," Martello said.
Martello said witnesses also saw Lassak pointing out trees to be cut. Lassak could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
But Mary J. Hilyard, a Van Nuys attorney who represented Beroukhim, said her client was not present at the site during the cutting and is innocent, despite his plea of no contest.
Beroukhim previously described the tree removal as an accident caused by a misunderstanding, aggravated by language differences with the Spanish-speaking tree cutters. Beroukhim said he had hired the crew only to clear garbage and brush. He has said in the past that he has no plans to build on the site.
'Could Happen to Anyone'
"This could happen to anyone if you're not on top of your property," Hilyard argued. "He hired a firm and they began chopping everything there. I don't believe they knew an oak tree from a fig leaf."
Beroukhim accepted the expensive plea bargain because the results of a jury trial were uncertain, particularly in Ventura County where pretrial publicity in the emotion-laden case would have made getting a fair trial difficult, Hilyard said.
Before lawyers for both sides completed the plea bargain Wednesday morning, Hilyard filed a motion requesting a change of venue to Los Angeles County.
"It would have been very difficult to find an impartial jury because of the strong community feeling," she said.