What started out as a pleasantly aromatic garden spot has turned into a leafy nightmare for residents in the North Hills section of Brea.
They paid little attention several years ago when one of their neighbors began growing plants and shrubs on a few leased acres of unincorporated land for a small nursery business.
The addition of trucks and a permanent trailer to service the thriving business raised a few eyebrows, but nobody considered making a fuss.
But little by little, residents said, the business has grown into a huge commercial enterprise. When the neighbors did complain, they found out the nursery owner had no permit or license to operate.
"Everyone just sort of assumed that an operation of this size would have to have the necessary permits," said Sandi Daubert, whose backyard faces the nursery. "It first appeared that it just sort of slipped through the cracks."
But officials now believe that the business, which is just across the border in Los Angeles County, may be perfectly legal and that, because of the way the zoning law that covers the property is written, there may be nothing the neighbors can do about it.
Residents in this bucolic neighborhood of $250,000 homes said their peace has been disturbed at all hours of the day and night by diesel trucks, forklifts, tractors and other heavy equipment used at the Village Nurseries on Puente Drive.
They said the noise and dust from nursery prevents them from opening windows in their homes, much less enjoying late evening breezes on their patios.
Some Live at Site
They also said many nursery workers live permanently in trailers at the site.
And they want the operations scaled down, the noise eliminated and all late-night activities ended.
"We hear them (nursery workers) coming and going all night long," Daubert said. "Other neighbors have told me they see lights on in the trailers all night. We often see them sitting on the curb waiting for rides, and they get drunk and create a lot of garbage."
The nursery, located on about 40 acres of unincorporated Los Angeles County land owned by Union Oil, includes row after row of potted plants and shrubs and potted and boxed trees, many 15 feet to 20 feet in height.
Several trailers dot the property, which also includes a large greenhouse. On a recent afternoon, large trucks rumbled onto the lot, ready to load cargo. Field workers, some on foot and some atop navy-blue tractors, ranged through the rows, pruning and watering plants.
"Most of the time it feels like I live in a factory," said Judy Worthen, another neighbor whose home abuts the nursery.
"It has just gotten out of hand. It was not supposed to be a big business, but now they bring in trucks and trailers at all hours of the night. It's too bad it had to come to this, because this is really not a vendetta against Tom."
Nursery owner Tom House, who lives just two blocks from the site, conceded that his business is much larger than it once was, but he denied that noise keeps neighbors awake all night. And he said no one complained until recently.
'Want Me Out of Here'
"I've only been approached by one neighbor, and apparently it has gotten to the point where they want me out of here," he said. "The talk about people making noise all night is way overstated."
House said that he is looking for another site for his nursery but is not sure how quickly he will be able to relocate.
In any event, he said, he thought all along that he needed no license to operate, no matter what the size of his business.
It appears he may be right.
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, the parcel is zoned for agricultural use. Louis Pera, supervisor of the zoning enforcement section, said that as long as the nursery is not used as a retail outlet, no special permit is needed.
"If he is indeed just dealing with plants that are grown on the property, then it's not really a wholesale business," Pera said. "We have to put this in the same category as a farmer who is growing crops. It is perfectly all right to have trucks coming in and taking the crops off the premises. It appears that it is the size of operation that has caused problems, but it wouldn't matter it were 40 miles of plants instead of 40 acres."
But Pera said his office will investigate other accusations that neighbors have made. Workers or caretakers, for example, would require a conditional use permit to remain on the property overnight, he said.
"There may be no recourse unless the Board of Supervisors wants to change the law and put some sort of limitation on the size of an operation," Pera added.
Daubert said neighbors will not give up their fight to have some regulations placed on the nursery. They have begun gathering petitions for a letter that will be sent to the Union Oil Company registering their complaints and have already contacted Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum's office, she said.