It's a common suburban tale.
Tall trees screening one homeowner's property annoy a neighbor by obstructing his view. One family wants its privacy, the other wants its vista.
But in Thousand Oaks, where residents take their trees more seriously than most, a view-conscious engineer is facing criminal charges for hacking down his neighbor's lofty peppers and sycamores.
Citing a rarely used law protecting trees and bushes, Ventura County prosecutors have filed a misdemeanor count of illegal cutting against Gary Mallaley, 49.
Mallaley, a longtime Thousand Oaks resident, says he had permission to trim the 25-foot trees, which were blocking the view of the Conejo Valley from his two-story hillside home.
The knotty case landed before a Ventura County jury Thursday and its outcome may put a new twist on an obscure California law.
Under the state's penal code, it is illegal to intentionally cut or remove a tree from private property without written permission from the property owner.
The statute also prohibits cutting another person's shrubs, ferns, herbs, bulbs, flowers, cactus, huckleberries and redwood greens without permission. And it requires that a permit be filed with the Sheriff's Department before any snipping or chopping begins.
Violation of the law, which does not apply to firefighters or utility companies, is punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.
Thousand Oaks attorney Dennis Kucera, who is representing Mallaley, says the statue is obscure for a reason.
"This law makes every single gardener a criminal," Kucera said. He contends the statute was enacted to protect forest land from poaching and should not be applied to a residential landscaping dispute. "I think this thing is just way out of proportion."
He said he could find no record of the law ever being enforced previously.
During opening statements before Superior Court Judge Glen Reiser on Thursday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Ruggles acknowledged the prosecution was unusual.
"But the law is an important one," Ruggles said. "And it is very simple in this case."
Last spring, Mallaley went to his neighbor's Rikkard Drive property and told the rental tenants he had permission to trim trees in their backyard, Ruggles said.
A few days later, she said, the tenants found that four trees had been "butchered." She told the jury Mallaley didn't have permission from homeowner Russell Nadel.
Outside the courtroom, Kucera said his client, a research director at Litton Data Systems, committed no crime because he had been given permission to trim the trees.
"I know they are denying it today, but the Nadels gave permission," Kucera said.
Russell and Deborah Nadel both took the witness stand and told jurors they never told Mallaley he could trim their trees--let alone hack them to 5-foot stumps.
"I gave permission to no one to top those trees," Russell Nadel testified. "It's going to take years to grow back."
A 41-year-old family law attorney, Nadel said he and his wife planted the trees 11 years ago to shelter their 2,200-square-foot beige stucco home from peeping neighbors, who could look directly into their bedroom window.
Nadel said they allowed the trees to grow tall and bushy so they would eliminate the "fishbowl effect" of tract-home life.
Nadel estimated the damage to his property at $55,000.
"It is frightening to me," he said, "that someone could do that."
Meanwhile, Mallaley vowed to take the witness stand next week and settle this unneighborly dispute once and for all.
Over the years, he said, his family tried to persuade the Nadels to let him plant shorter shrubs that would protect the couple's privacy while preserving his view. But they refused, he said.
To now face criminal prosecution, Mallaley said, "is an injustice."