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Moorpark Delays Plans to Cut Trees

In seeking a restraining order, businessmen say removal would violate environmental laws.

March 06, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Moorpark officials have agreed to hold off on plans to cut down five mature pepper trees along High Street after two businessmen took the city to court, contending their removal would violate state environmental laws.

William and James Whitaker, brothers who operate a 78-year-old hardware store on High Street, hired a Ventura environmental lawyer to seek a temporary restraining order against the city. The City Council voted last month to remove the trees -- which are more than 100 years old -- and aggressively prune 11 others to reduce the likelihood of them toppling over or dropping branches on people or vehicles.

The brothers' legal request alleges that the city violated state law by not conducting a thorough environmental review of the plan to remove the trees, which the businessmen maintain were designated as historic county landmarks 22 years ago. They also challenge the city's classifying the action as an emergency ordinance without properly notifying the public.

"This is a battle the city cannot win," William Whitaker said. Since last fall, the brothers have gathered nearly 1,800 petition signatures in favor of saving the leafy trees that tower above businesses along the town's original business thoroughfare. "I'm the farthest from a tree-hugger of anyone you've ever seen, but our support is great on this."

On Wednesday, the city agreed to postpone work on the trees until an April 15 hearing before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Thomas J. Hutchins, who will decide whether to grant the restraining order.

"I don't think the city is in any hurry," said City Councilman Keith Millhouse. "I want to make sure all the proper procedures were followed and to try to strike a balance between public safety and the historic character of the trees."

While the council supports protecting the ambience created by the trees, Millhouse said, keeping them alive at all costs may not be fiscally responsible.

"These are living, breathing things and the cycle of life means that at some point they become diseased and die," he said. "I hope we don't get a heavy windstorm and a tree comes down and hurts somebody."

At its Feb. 4 meeting, the City Council heard from an arborist hired to review the work of three other tree experts and to personally evaluate the health of two dozen trees earlier identified as presenting a safety hazard.

"You don't very often find trees on a street that are more than 100 years old," said arborist Michael T. Mahoney of Newport Beach. "These are really quite remarkable that they are still even there."

Mahoney told the council that these "senior trees" were too old to be used primarily for shade because allowing oversized canopies on such tall trees would make them top-heavy, raising the risk of them falling over. Instead, he recommended pruning them considerably, removing trees of questionable stability and replacing them with younger pepper trees.

Attorney Kate Neiswender, representing the Whitakers, said Mahoney's written report suggested that some of the targeted trees were in areas of potential future development, which, she added, was probably the true motivation for the city's plan.

Two pepper trees were removed last year to make way for a fire station under construction on High Street, and two others near the town's Metrolink station were cited as not being ideal for replanting.

"The idea that these trees are an immediate danger is a complete sham," Neiswender said. The city's exempting its plan from environmental review based on the idea that removing the trees was a public safety emergency will not hold up in court, she said.

Most important to the Whitakers' argument is the Oct. 20, 1981, designation of High Street's pepper trees as County Landmark No. 72 by the county's Cultural Heritage Board. Neiswender and the heritage board staff maintain that once a landmark has been declared it does not lose its status, even if the land underneath is later annexed by a city.

"It's going to be difficult for the city to claim that cutting down the tree won't produce an adverse impact on the environment," she said. "It's the character of the street, the nature of the ambience created when you walk down there."

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