Trouble rolled like bowling balls across the velvet lawn at Holmby Park the minute the chain saws were fired up.
Someone was mysteriously slicing away at trees in the quiet city park in Westwood, located down the street from the Playboy Mansion and producer Aaron Spelling's place.
They weren't just any trees, either. They were species collected from around the world by the Janss family, the original developers of Westwood. They were trees that had shaded the neighborhood park for seven decades.
Problem is, they were too shady. Shadows from podocarpus, magnolia and Moreton Bay fig trees were causing grass on the park's lawn bowling courts to turn brown.
And brown would not do for members of the private Holmby Park Lawn Bowling Assn.--particularly since its white-clad bowlers had invited a British lawn bowling team to come play them in a tournament planned for next month.
So tree-trimmers were summoned by Los Angeles parks officials, who were asked to take the necessary steps to remove the shade. And when a rare tipuana tipu tree hit the ground on July 9, other users of the park on Beverly Glen Drive hit the ceiling.
The dispute that followed is now pitting upscale nature lovers against genteel lawn bowlers. It has provoked harsh words from both sides and caused some to question the right of a private club to control part of a public park.
After two months of debate, both sides remain polarized.
"People were horrified when they saw what had happened. One man stopped his car and stood in the street and cried," said Diane Shackleford, a Brentwood resident who claims she was berated during a park visit by a lawn bowling official after she complained about the tree-cutting.
Four trees were chopped down in the July incident and 15 others were heavily pruned--"mutilated" is the way Shackleford puts it.
"The Moreton Bay fig was trimmed like a totem pole--you want to scream when you see it. The magnolia was half cut like a piece of pie. The lawn bowling people have decided they want this place to look like Palm Springs."
Lionel Krisel, a past president of the lawn bowling club and a Bel-Air resident, disagrees. He said bowlers "begged the city for years" to trim trees casting shadows on the hybrid Bermuda grass that forms the perfectly flat bowling greens.
"I'm very much surprised an issue is being made of it. It's a pity to lose a tree like that. But on the other hand there are lots of other trees like that in the park," Krisel said.
Area residents say the trees date to the late 1920s, when the 8 1/2-acre park was dedicated to the city by the Janss Co. Along with the bowling greens, the park includes a small pitch-and-putt golf course.
According to residents, 53 rare seedlings purportedly collected by Janss family members and others on trips around the world were brought back by steamship and planted in the park.
Numbered and marked with identifying tags, the trees were interspaced around the tiny golf course and the two 100-foot-square bowling greens.
Both sides agree that the upcoming visit by British lawn bowlers was the motivation for the cutting. Fifty-four members of the Rams Lawn Bowling Club of London will participate in the Oct. 15 tourney.
Sickly turf on the bowling courts has been a problem for several years, said Brian Studwell, treasurer of the Holmby Park lawn bowling club.
Before inviting the English bowlers to come play, "We asked the city if they could get the greens back to international levels," said Studwell, a retired banker who lives in Stone Canyon.
"We said, 'You've agreed to repair the greens and you know the principal problem is shade.' Shade is a killer to bowling greens."
Parks administrators have sided with lawn bowlers in the dispute.
The tree-pruning and the replanting of sod on the bowling greens now taking place is merely maintenance--not kowtowing to the lawn bowlers' demands, said Steve Ball, a parks landscape administrator for the city.
"We discussed the need to do it and made that decision," Ball said Friday of the tree-cutting. "We're confident it was a sound decision and necessary."
Kathleen Chan, a projects manager for the Recreation and Parks Department, said previously planned improvements to Holmby Park were delayed when former 5th District City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky was replaced by Michael Feuer.
"Whenever you do deferred maintenance it probably looks a tad over-done," Chan said Friday. "It's very difficult to grow lawns in heavily shaded areas. . . . I'm comfortable with the fact the department did not go out there and butcher anything for the sole pleasure of the lawn bowlers."
Others aren't so sure, however.
"Seventy years and suddenly those trees are casting shadows? Come on," scoffed Betty Woodbury, a Rustic Canyon resident who has visited Holmby Park for nearly a half-century. "It just seems that the bowlers are being very concerned about having some Brits come over to play."