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The Region

Trees vs. Views: Something Must Give

Laguna Beach is joining other cities, such as Rancho Palos Verdes, in seeking rules to referee neighborhood disputes that can grow nasty.

August 25, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

With such street names as Bay View Place, Buena Vista Lane, All View Terrace and Coast View Drive, it's safe to say that Laguna Beach prizes its coastal panoramas.

So when eucalyptus or pine trees block a view, it gets ugly: Once-friendly neighbors stop speaking and call out the attorneys; homeowners returning from vacation find that their trees have been trimmed, topped off, poisoned or removed in their absence.

Several years ago a jury ordered a neighbor to pay a homeowner $39,000 for trimming the owner's trees over several years without permission.

And now City Hall, which already limits the heights of hedges and houses, is wondering how to control the growing problem of tree-blocked views. The Planning Commission will take up the debate next month, and options are expected to be referred to the City Council this winter.

"We can't avoid dealing with this because it's going to get worse," said Councilman Wayne Baglin.

Among the hot-button questions: Who should pay to have trees trimmed, the owner or the complaining party?

Dave Connell has long awaited a solution. He bought a hilltop home in 1964 that afforded him a 200-degree view of the coastline, and complains now that he's lost half of it because neighbors planted about 15 eucalyptus, pine and elm trees.

"I only bought here for one reason, and that was the view," he said. "And there were no trees."

He said his success in negotiating with neighbors was spotty. Some ignored him, and one agreed to trim his trees once in a while, but if Connell paid.

The cost to trim a tree varies depending on its height, density and other factors, but a $300 fee is typical. "How could I afford to pay for that?" Connell said.

Along the coast, Del Mar, Malibu, Encinitas, Tiburon and the county of San Mateo have debated the same issues.

Rancho Palos Verdes passed an ordinance in 1996 that is considered a model for other cities. If City Hall agrees that a tree blocks a view, the complaining party must pay for the trimming up front. When the work is done, the offending homeowner must pay the reimbursement. The tree-trimming program costs the city more than $200,000 a year in administrative costs, said Joel Rojas, director of planning, building and code enforcement.

The Laguna Beach City Council adopted an ordinance in January requiring that property-line hedges not exceed 4 feet high if they block a neighbor's view or sunlight or pose a safety hazard. The complaining party, however, must first pay $200 for city crews to measure the hedges and assess the problem.

As for a tree ordinance, Ann Cristoph, a landscape architect and former mayor, said residents on both sides of the issue would be best served by a policy combining hard enforcement and neighborly negotiation.

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