A La Cañada resident living on the 700 block of Forest Green Drive was fed up last month with a neighboring sycamore tree that continually dropped leaves into his pool. Seeing that the property next door where the tree grew was unoccupied and in the process of being "flipped" by an investment firm, the resident instructed his gardener to remove the tree.
After the property owners filed a police report against the neighbor and the gardener, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department contacted the city's code enforcement division to weigh in on the matter, according to Vahe Massih, an enforcement officer.
For years, La Cañada had been refining its ordinance pertaining to protected trees — including sycamores, deodars and trees whose diameters exceed 30 inches — and outlining penalties and compensations for removing them, either through a permission process or illegally.
Until recently, the ordinance concerned itself only with the owner of the property on which a protected tree was located. According to that section of the Municipal Code, the owner would be cited if a removal was done without permission, and required either to replace the downed tree at his or her expense or pay into the city's general tree replacement fund.
But as of Tuesday, language has been adopted specifying the city's response in rare instances when a property owner's tree is removed or significantly pruned without his or her permission.
That and information related to how lost trees are valuated, the restitution limits for downed trees of different sizes and how low-income offenders may appeal very high city fines were detailed for City Council members Tuesday as they approved amendments to ordinances initially adopted in July.
The council also adopted guidelines for tree preservation and protection, the publication of which they hope to circulate throughout the community.
Community Development Director Robert Stanley recounted the tale of the resident and the sycamore tree at Tuesday's meeting as he explained some of the new information staff members had included in the ordinance to cover unlikely occurrences that may surface.
The new information states that trees 12 inches to 23 inches in diameter are to be replaced at an average installation cost of $174. A property owner removing that tree would have to pay $354 into the tree fund with city permission. But if a tree of that size were illegally removed, the fine would be $1,052. Comparatively, the removal of a tree 36 inches or more in diameter could cost an offender $10,800.
In cases where a tree's diameter cannot be ascertained — if, for example, the entire tree and trunk had been previously removed — a flat fine of $5,400 would be issued. Additionally, the city reserves the right, in the case of certain serious violations, to pursue misdemeanor charges against offenders, according to Harriet Harris, an assistant planner who helped draft the language in the Municipal Code.
"We don't generally do it, but that is an option that is available to us," Harris said in an interview Wednesday.
Massih said Wednesday that when the city investigates an illegal tree removal case, an enforcement officer typically issues a citation in the amount of $200 calling for replacement of the tree or payment into the tree replacement fund. If those requests are ignored, the fine jumps to $500 and then $1,000 if still nothing is done.
"They're expensive trees," he said of the protected species. "Also, it costs a lot of money to plant these trees. It can get pretty expensive really quickly."
In the case of the Forest Green Drive resident, legal proceedings are continuing to determine exactly who is at fault for the removal and loss of the sycamore. The city is pursuing the matter as a code enforcement case, Massih said.
Once culpability is determined, fines and citations can be issued. All in all, Harris said, this recent incident provided an opportunity for the city to be more thorough and discretionary in its own policies.
"The whole idea behind this was to simplify our tree ordinance. As we got into it, it was so difficult to make it simple," Mayor Laura Olhasso said Tuesday. "It's simpler but not simple."
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