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Covert Tree Trimming Prompts Suit

Woman is angry that a neighbor had 27 tall trees pruned. View ordinance could have resolved the dispute, but wasn't invoked.

November 30, 2002|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

In Marina Simes' view, what happened to the trees around her Rancho Palos Verdes home is a crime.

In Eva Wildey's, it was a crime that the 27 towering pines, peppers and cherry trees blocked her husband's panoramic view of Abalone Cove and the Pacific beyond.

So Wildey allegedly sent her own tree-trimmers onto Simes' property to lop off the tops of the trees that for years had obscured Thomas Wildey's magnificent ocean vista.

The pruning last Dec. 15 so angered Simes that she has sued the Wildeys for infliction of emotional distress, trespassing and "injury" to the shortened trees.

The dispute along a quiet stretch of Sea Cove Drive, across the cove from the Palos Verdes Peninsula's famous Wayfarer's Chapel, is proof that there is often more than one point of view when it comes to preserving view points.

Simes, 93, said she and her late husband planted the trees around their low-slung, glass-walled oceanfront home 40 years ago. So aside from the shade, there is the sentimentality involved.

"It broke my heart to see them cut; it really did. How could anybody have done such a cruel thing?" Simes said. "It's almost unbelievable."

The unauthorized pruning took place on a day that Simes was away from home, running errands with daughter Pamela Simes Fleming and helping a quadriplegic friend decorate for Christmas.

"We could see that the trees were missing coming down the street on the way home," Fleming said. "My mother started crying. Sixty-foot-tall trees had been cut down to roof level. A notch was cut in a row of trees out by the street."

Eva Wildey declined to comment on the pruning or the lawsuit. Her husband did not return messages left for him at their home or at the Rolling Hills fire station where he works as a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain.

But Eva Wildey allegedly admitted commissioning the cutting, first in a phone call to Fleming and then in a handwritten note to Simes the day after the pruning occurred.

"Mrs. Wildey called at 9 the next day and said, 'We cut them down to give my husband his dream -- an ocean view,' " Fleming said.

The note, allegedly signed by Eva Wildey, accepted responsibility for the chopping and pledged to restore the trees. "The Wildeys are responsible for the costs attendant to fixing or replacing the trees," the note states.

Simes said that at her age, that's a meaningless promise.

"Words and apologies won't help," she said. "It will take too long for the trees to grow back. And new trees would only be little saplings."

Residents along Sea Cove Drive acknowledge that Simes' trees were huge before the trimming.

"It was like a forest," Fleming said. "The Wildeys had asked if we'd trim them. But I grew up with Tom -- we played together and went to school together. I told him my mother couldn't bear to cut them. I said, 'My parents planted them -- you know how much they loved them.' "

Ironically, the Wildeys could have forced Simes to trim her trees.

Rancho Palos Verdes is the most aggressive city in California in protecting residents' ocean views from being obliterated by tall trees.

In 1989, the city enacted a pioneering ordinance that prevents "needless destruction and impairment of vista points and view lots," requiring that overgrown trees and bushes be pruned.

Since then, other ocean-side communities, including Rolling Hills, Laguna Beach and Del Mar, have enacted similar laws. Currently, officials in Malibu also are mulling over creation of a view shed protection ordinance -- a proposal that caused one leader earlier this month to warn that "if you want to restore views on Point Dume, you will have to cut down all the trees."

Rancho Palos Verdes' law requires homeowners first to try to resolve tall-tree disputes among themselves. If that fails, city officials meet with the two sides next to try to hammer out an agreement. And if that doesn't work, a 10-member View Restoration Commission becomes involved.

If it is decided that offending trees need to be thinned out or topped, the matter goes to the city prosecutor, who can seek a court-authorized warrant that authorizes enforcement of the view protection law.

If the property owner still refuses to trim the trees, the city can hire landscape crews to enter the property and do the pruning. If the owner doesn't pay the tree-trimmers' costs, the city can put a lien on the property to recover the expense.

The city has handled about 300 tree disputes so far, and all but 12 have been settled without court action.

The most recent court-ordered trimming occurred last summer, when 28 tall eucalyptus trees and a "hedge" of smaller pepper trees were thinned out at one resident's home. Rancho Palos Verdes is preparing a bill for the homeowner, said Trayci Nelson, the city's senior view restoration coordinator.

Nelson said the city's ordinance has survived several court challenges. The entire process, from height complaint to city-ordered pruning, takes about a year, she said.

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