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Ventura County

Agency Blames Landowner for Uprooting 301 Oaks

Environment: The real estate broker says he was framed. He may be fined $300,000 to nearly $3 million for the trees near Lake Casitas.

April 19, 2002|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite his impassioned claims that he was framed because of ethnic prejudice, an Egyptian American real estate broker was held responsible by county officials Thursday for the destruction of 301 protected oaks on his property outside Ojai.

An attorney for William Kaddis said his client will appeal the county Planning Commission's ruling to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Earlier this week, Kaddis sued the county, contending that county employees trespassed on his 44 hillside acres near Lake Casitas to build a case against him.

The penalty for Kaddis' violation could run from $300,000 to nearly $3 million, officials said.

In an emotional statement before the planning commissioners Thursday, Kaddis said that owners of nearby properties were upset that he had purchased the $615,000 parcel off Baldwin Road. One of them disgustedly asked him, "Where the hell are you from?" he said, and an anonymous letter threatened that he would be harmed and his citrus groves burned.

Kaddis raised his voice as he rejected the accusations against him. "I am not a dog!" he said. "I am not a lawbreaker! I am a Christian! All of a sudden when I come to Ventura County I am suddenly a lawbreaker!"

However, planning commissioners did not buy Kaddis' contention that he had nothing to do with the trees that were found uprooted on his property last fall.

"I'd have to assume a great conspiracy" among various county departments and angry neighbors, said Commissioner Selma Dressler. "It defies reason."

Even if commissioners had agreed that the oaks were bulldozed by an enemy of Kaddis, state law requires that the property owner be liable for environmental infractions, said Michael Wesner, the commission's chairman.

"The landowner is held accountable regardless of who did it," he said.

Kaddis, 57, lives in Los Angeles and had searched the state for an ideal retirement spot, according to testimony Thursday. He also had mentioned building a church, kennel or battered women's sanctuary on the site, according to a county report.

Photographs displayed by planning officials Thursday showed hillsides shorn of both oaks and native grasses. However, 20 acres of orange trees were left intact.

Kaddis admitted renting bulldozers, but said they were used only to clear brush at the site. The bulldozers were vandalized before they were returned to the rental company, but Kaddis said he didn't know who did it. He also said his irrigation pipes had been intentionally cut.

Neil Evans, Kaddis' attorney, sought to have the hearing delayed one month. In that time, he promised, he would find an arborist to testify that the 301 uprooted oaks were killed long before Kaddis owned the property.

Such testimony would sharply contrast with the findings of the tree expert hired by the county. After examining the downed trees, Paul Rogers concluded that they had been bulldozed no earlier than Aug. 12, 2001. Kaddis had taken possession of the land two weeks earlier.

But commissioners said that Kaddis could have found an expert as long ago as last October, when he was told by the county planning department that he had violated laws protecting oak trees. They also rejected Evans' claim that county employees had been excessively zealous in making their case against Kaddis.

"I'm really disturbed at the personal attacks made on the planning staff," Dressler said.

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