I stopped by Monarch Bay Terrace in southern Orange County the other day to have a look at Mary Trudeau's trees. The trees have become a cause celebre in the past few months because the homeowners association wants them down and Trudeau doesn't. And the standoff touches two nerves that jangle people in Orange County these days: the conflict over a variety of issues between homeowner associations and individual residents and the reluctance to destroy trees. Any trees.
Trudeau--an animated, attractive woman with gray-white hair--moved to Monarch Bay Terrace in 1972 with her husband and two small children. The area was just being developed, and prices were considerably lower than they are now. The eucalyptus trees--six of them on her property--had been planted long before she moved there, Trudeau says, to buffer the wind and noise from Coast Highway below.
Trudeau was divorced in 1983 and has been raising her children alone since then--a daughter who graduates this year from high school and a son in college. She has a modest job that pays a modest wage but says she has been able to make ends meet because she bought her home at a highly propitious time. She cares for it lovingly, both inside and out, as its appearance attests.
The crunch started officially last Feb. 17 when Trudeau--and several other residents along her street--received a letter from the Monarch Bay Terrace Property Owners Assn. telling her that her trees violated the conditions, covenants and restrictions signed by all property owners in the area and she would have to remove them. The letter continued: "We would certainly appreciate your cooperation. Please understand that if you . . . don't remedy the problem, suit will be filed against you . . . without further notice."
Trudeau insists that this was the first time she was aware anyone was seriously upset about her trees. "Representatives of the association told me people had been grumbling for years," she said. "Why, then, did it take 17 years for the grumbles to be translated into action?"
Attorney Roger W. Calton, who just stepped down as president of the homeowners association, told me that Avco Corp., which developed the property, had held the covenants and apparently chose not to enforce them for many years. "Avco moved out of here in 1987," Calton explained, "and at that time transferred the rights of enforcement to the homeowners association. There are certain deed restrictions that go with the land. When Mary Trudeau bought the property, she was bound--as all of us are--by those restrictions."
Trudeau says she didn't know anything about restrictions, that her ex-husband took care of such business--and besides, the trees were there when she arrived and she loves them. She also loves a lot of other trees she has planted around her house that have also become the subject of criticism from homeowners who live farther up the hill.
The original letter to Trudeau from the association threatened legal action by March 15 if she didn't comply, but she didn't and they didn't. Instead, she talked with a member of the association board, explaining that even if she was of such a mind, she couldn't afford to have the trees removed. That brought a second letter from the association that said in part: "Upon presentation to the association of a financial statement that shows the trimming/removal of the trees on your property would result in severe hardship to you, the association will pay for the same to bring you into compliance with the CC&Rs."
Trudeau didn't think her finances were any of the association's business, but she couldn't afford legal help and finally threw up her hands and sent the association a letter disclosing her annual earnings and agreeing to give up her eucalyptus trees "at the cost of the association," adding that she did not consent "to cutting down any other trees on my property."
And there the matter stands. Calton says the association's only income comes from its $50 yearly dues, so it is having to pass the hat to try to raise the money to cut down Trudeau's trees. "There are a few other people who have either ignored or opposed us," he says, "but most people who were out of compliance just cut down or cut back their trees. The problem gets worse each year a tree grows, particularly in a view-sensitive area like this. There are lots of homeowners' associations in this area with architectural controls a lot more stringent than ours."
Meanwhile, Mary Trudeau is digging in to protect the rest of her trees. There are four liquid ambers (that are bare for half the year) and several species of pine that shade her home and a delightful patio where I enjoyed coffee with her. She showed me a Michigan State University study that said that during a 50-year lifetime, a tree produces $31,250 worth of oxygen and $62,000 worth of air pollution control and that good landscaping--of which trees are the most important element--accounts for about 20% of homeowners' property value.
"The first thing I loved about this place was the trees," she said stoutly. "It takes many years to grow trees like these, and if I lose them, it will hurt my property badly. I've resigned myself to losing the eucalyptus but not the others. I've always stood up for my children, and now I'm going to stand up for my trees. But I'm a real wimp. I think of all the things I want to say, and then I'm intimidated. If they sue me, I'd have to hire an attorney, and I can't afford that. Still, I figure it's time for someone to stand up."
And how does the association feel about Trudeau's other trees?
"Let's get the eucalyptus taken care of first," Calton says. "Then we'll look at the other trees. . . ."