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A Tree Starts a War : In a Nutshell, Pecan Tree Pits Neighbor Against Neighbor

December 20, 1990|MIKE WARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POMONA — It started as a neighbors' tiff over the trimming of a pecan tree, and from there it went completely nuts.

The feud between Hacienda Place neighbors Robert Garcia and Martin and Darleen Stoner has escalated since the summer of 1988 into a free-for-all involving a hidden video camera wielded by a private detective, alleged indignities inflicted on a tree rose and dwarf palm, thousands of pecans in a driveway and "kissing noises" made across property lines.

Things hit a high, or perhaps low, point last month when a Pomona Municipal Court jury convicted Garcia of battery (for spitting at Stoner over a fence), disturbing the peace (for putting a loud radio along their property line) and of violating a restraining order (by spraying water on Stoner and his car).

"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," Garcia said recently, as he contemplated the trouble he finds himself in. "At the same time," he added, "I know it's been hell for the Stoners."

At the center of the war is a huge pecan tree on the Stoners' property that Garcia claims has bombarded his driveway and flower beds with thousands of nuts.

But the real core of the dispute may lie in the neighbors' vastly different outlooks.

Garcia, 38, a painting contractor with a wife and two young sons, describes himself as "neat and meticulous." He works in his yard every day, picking up leaves, trimming bushes and mowing the lawn. His yard is immaculate.

Next-door are Stoner, 48, a botany professor at Cal Poly Pomona, and his wife, Darleen, 46, a professor of education at Cal State San Bernardino. Their front yard is full of plants and ground cover around the pecan tree, which is more than 100 years old and has been designated historic by the city. Garcia calls their yard "overgrown."

The Stoners declined to be interviewed, but their attorney, Gary Wunderlin, said they "take great pleasure in their home."

Garcia said he recognized early in his dealings with Stoner that the man loves plants. "To him every tree is special, but a tree on his own property is priceless," Garcia said.

Garcia said he first asked Stoner to trim the huge pecan tree at the center of the dispute even before he moved into his house in June, 1988. Stoner promised to trim the tree, Garcia said, but it took him weeks to hire a crew, and only one huge limb was removed.

"I figured what the heck, the tree means a lot to him," Garcia said, adding he then tried to extract a promise that Stoner would at least clean up the pecan tree droppings. He declined, Garcia said.

So Garcia hired a tree service, and Stoner returned home to find a crew in his yard starting to hack away at his pecan tree. Stoner called the police and stopped the work.

By the end of 1988, a crew hired by Stoner trimmed the pecan tree back from the Garcia property, but by then the war was on.

In a lawsuit filed against Garcia last year, the Stoners complained that Garcia installed bright outdoor lights that shined into their bedroom window, that a fence in front of their house had been broken, and that a tree rose and dwarf palm had been uprooted.

In a cross-complaint, Garcia accused the Stoners of denying him the enjoyment of his property by refusing to clean up the leaves and shells that still drifted over from the pecan tree.

The Stoners in September, 1988, obtained a restraining order requiring Garcia to stay 30 feet away from them. Then they began calling police regularly to report violations.

The complaints ranged from Garcia's squirting water from a hose at the Stoners to Garcia's coming up to their table at a Denny's restaurant and whispering: "I hope you enjoy your dinner." They also claimed that rocks and eggs were thrown at their house and that a garden hose was slashed.

Garcia called the police too, though not as often as the Stoners. He reported that Martin Stoner had sprayed him with water and also claimed that he had spotted Stoner in a tree shining a flashlight into his van. Stoner denied the allegation to police, but said he sometimes climbs into trees looking for his chickens.

Pomona Police Officer Carl Ronk, in a letter to the county Probation Department on Garcia's behalf, said: "Mr. Stoner called the police every time Mr. Garcia walked down his driveway. Most of the calls never should have been made."

Wunderlin said the complaints to police produced little action because, in most cases, it was just one neighbor's word against another. So he suggested that the Stoners hire a private detective.

Using a hidden camera, the detective videotaped Garcia putting a radio along a fence while Martin Stoner was working in his yard. The detective said the radio played loud rock music and that Garcia looked at Stoner and made "kissing noises." Although it wasn't captured on videotape, the detective also said he saw Garcia spit over a wall, hitting Stoner on the arm.

Using the videotape evidence and other reports of witnesses, the district attorney's office filed 12 misdemeanor counts against Garcia and won conviction on seven. Judge Reginald Yates last week fined Garcia $470, placed him on probation for two years and ordered him to spend 10 days working at a tree farm.

Garcia said he will appeal--and that his house is on the market.

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