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Nature Has Last Word in Tiff Over Trees

Environment: Man who fought neighbor's plan to cut down towering cedars wins officials' backing, but loses garage when windstorm sides with his opponent.

January 20, 1997|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months they argued over the two deodar cedars on Beulah Drive in La Canada Flintridge.

Homeowner Jeff Frame warned that the 113-foot trees in his backyard were weakened by root rot. "They're dangerous. They need to be taken down before they fall," he said.

Ridiculous, replied next-door neighbor David Kirscheimer, who liked the way the evergreens towered over his own backyard.

"They're perfectly healthy. Together with earthquakes, brush fires and floods, a healthy tree falling down is one of the risks any resident of the foothills knowingly accepts."

In the nine-square-mile city northeast of Los Angeles, officials sided with Kirscheimer. But Mother Nature sided with Frame.

One of Frame's cedars toppled in the Jan. 6 windstorm and smashed Kirscheimer's garage.

Trees have always been an emotional issue in La Canada Flintridge. It proudly brags that it is a "Tree City USA" town with strict rules against chopping down oaks, sycamores and deodar cedars--species that are protected by a special tree ordinance.

Still, nobody in the upscale residential community of 19,700 people was prepared for how this tree debate would end.

Frame, 42, is a property manager and builder who has lived all of his life in the area. Kirscheimer, 40, is an investment advisor who has lived there for 15 years. The cedars, each weighing about 12 tons, have lived there about 70 years.

Both men hired tree experts named Randy to support their position on the trees' condition.

Frame's arborist, Randy Smith, found "root system damage, root rot and decay."

Kirscheimer's arborist, Randy Finch, found that "the observed condition of these trees cause no alarm to register."

Seven weeks ago, Frame's tree-removal request landed before the city's Planning Commission.

Kirscheimer urged officials to require that Frame obtain scientific, below-ground root tests and get "affirmative reports" from two different arborists before any tree-cutting permit was issued.

Frame produced letters from several old-timers along Beulah Drive who recalled how other deodar cedars on his lot had fallen in past windstorms.

"They are a disaster waiting to happen," said 40-year resident Hal Cooper--who said one falling cedar knocked out power to the neighborhood for five days.

Neighbor Robert Andresen, who has lived there 38 years, related how one of his cedar trees once toppled onto Frame's house. And he said a deodar in Frame's yard once fell onto the house where Kirscheimer lives.

Frame's arborist sketched out what commissioners were told was the "circle of death"--the 113-foot radius around the trees that he calculated would be in danger if the trees fell down.

Kirscheimer, whose home was depicted within the circle, shrugged off that suggestion. He confided that the towering cedars--which form a graceful backdrop to his ranch-style home--were one of the reasons he moved to Beulah Drive to begin with.

He joked that Frame's tree report had been written by "the Dr. Kevorkian of arborists."

City commissioners told Frame he would need scientific proof that the cedars were in a dangerous condition before they would authorize their removal. Then they voted 4 to 1 to turn down his request.

But before the dispute could blow over, the winds blew in.

Kirscheimer was at work when the cedar fell. But Frame and his family were eating breakfast when the tree crashed, knocking out power to both houses for 2 1/2 days.

"I was glad the thing went down, to be honest," Frame said Friday. He recalled that he decided to sit back and wait for Kirscheimer to come knocking on his door.

"David came over and said, 'We have a problem,' " said Frame. "I could have been smart and said, 'You've got a problem.' But I want to be a good neighbor."

Kirscheimer said he'll use his own insurance to pay for the repairs to his garage. And on Friday he was complimenting Frame for not having an I-told-you-so attitude.

But Kirscheimer still doesn't believe the tree fell because of root-rot problems. He blames a combination of rain-sodden earth and the high winds.

"When you have a few hundred other trees in town getting blown down in wind that, if not an all-time record, is close to it, nothing is surprising," he said.

Kirscheimer has dropped his opposition to the removal of the second cedar. (Senior City Planner Robert Stanley said Friday that an emergency ordinance will allow Frame to cut it down without further delay.)

"I don't want this falling into my house any more than the next guy," Kirscheimer said.

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