In the past year the city of La Cañada Flintridge has fined five residents for trimming or removing a city-protected tree in violation of the city’s tree ordinance, but one resident says it’s the city that is breaking the law.

Richard Cohen has written to the city, met with officials and distributed a letter to local publications contending the tree ordinance is improper. The Valley Sun published his letter on Sept. 13.

City officials say the law is sound.

The language that concerns Cohen is the city’s ability to impose financial penalties on residents who remove or trim too much of a protected tree.

The law states that property owners who illegally remove or excessively trim a protected tree may be fined and must replace the tree.

Depending on the circumstances, the city’s director of community development or the planning commission can require that additional replacement trees be planted, as well. When the required replacement trees cannot be accommodated on site, the law states, the city can require the property owner to pay an amount equal to the estimated value of the protected tree.

In Cohen’s view, the city only has the right to a issue a minimal fine unless it both requires a replacement tree and that tree can only be planted off site. He says the recent fines, which have ranged from the hundreds of dollars into the tens of thousands, are too much.

“For at least the last 10 years, the city, in my view, has been illegally fining unsuspecting property owners for removing or excessively trimming a protected tree located on the property owner’s site,” Cohen wrote.

In a separate document, Cohen said he believes the ordinance is unconstitutional. “A property owner has the absolute right to trim his trees and to prohibit that right by imposing a constitutionally vague ordinance… is a violation of the constitutional rights of the property owner,” he wrote.

City officials say the city’s authority to protect designated trees — including deodar cedars, sycamores and other species — is constitutional and that Cohen is misreading aspects of the law.

“The ordinance is very clear that the city does have authority to fine residents who excessively trim and remove a protected tree,” Deputy City Attorney Adrian Guerra told the City Council on Sept. 17.

Guerra said that he is unaware of any court challenge to the ordinance.

City Manager Mark Alexander said that Cohen may believe the law treats removed trees and those that are excessively trimmed differently, but the ordinance provides for potential restitution in either case.

The city is undertaking a review of the tree ordinance, with an eye toward removing some protected species from the list and making other changes. Alexander said city staff will study the part of the law that concerns Cohen and suggest changes to the City Council as appropriate, but said the law is being applied as intended.