For years, La Cañada has worn the mantle of "Tree City USA," a title bestowed by the national Arbor Day Foundation upon communities that support tree preservation, in part, by maintaining a comprehensive tree ordinance.
The city recently revised its tree ordinance after 12 years to simplify rules protecting certain species and to codify language on preservation, removal and maintenance. At the time, City Council had the opportunity to consider also protecting "heritage trees," or nonprotected species with a diameter of at least 36 inches, but declined.
Now, a month after the revision, some residents living on La Forest Drive are concerned with what they believe is an ordinance that's too permissive and is allowing a local developer to legally remove several 100-foot-tall pines on a neighboring lot.
"The whole thing is going to be clear cut, basically," said neighbor Lorrie Buchanan Alves. "If he wants to take out every piece of vegetation and raze this thing flat, he can."
Alves and neighbor Cameron Crosby, whose lots abut the property in question, have communicated with property owner Seung Choon "Mario" Lim through emails and two neighborhood meetings held by Lim in September and October to discuss renovation plans.
In the first meeting, Lim informed neighbors he wished to expand the 1956 home and remove some of the 23 trees on the overgrown lot.
Crosby said he supported the plan at the time but was angered when he discovered, in a second meeting one month later, Lim planned to remove 20 trees — including several tall pines Crosby felt crucial to the character of the street.
"These trees are part of a canopy," Crosby said Tuesday. "This is just about the community's desire to maintain the forest feel we have."
Harriet Harris, an assistant planner who worked on the tree ordinance revision, said any tree that is non-native and therefore unprotected can be removed without a permit, regardless of its age or size.
When the ordinance was being presented for approval, she added, City Council was not in favor of protecting heritage trees.
"The Council didn't want it," Harris said. "I think they thought that, when we're trying to simplify things, that flew in the face of simplicity."
Santa Monica attorney Alan Kaplan, who represents Lim and has spoken on his behalf at Planning Commission meetings, said his client's house is the only one on the street that is totally overgrown with trees.
"All the properties around have forest, but they also have open space for lawns and pools to admit sunlight," Kaplan said. "This property is the only one that doesn't have any sunlight at all."
Kaplan said Lim doesn't plan to remove all the trees, and that in the end, the property will resemble many of the lots on the street.
Harris said as the property owner, it's perfectly within Lim's right to remove the pines if he wishes.
"If they're not protected, he can do what he wants with them," she said.
Although Alves takes personal issue with some of what she perceives as holes in Lim's application with the city and his plans to all but tear down the original home, she acknowledges most neighbors' concerns end with the trees.
"There are no protected trees in this neighborhood, and there's no diameter protection. I had no idea you could cut down whatever trees you wanted," she said.
Crosby said he plans to address City Council in an upcoming meeting, asking them to please reconsider what he sees as laxity in the rules.
"Just like good fences make good neighbors, good policies make a good community, and we have broken down a policy to its minimum, thin-layered veneer, to where there are no protections," Crosby said, stating his main goal is to address the ordinance, and not to fight about Lim's legal right.
"I'm still hoping hearts will be softened on this and they will rethink it," he said.