Out on a limb over trimming fiasco

November 28 2007 - Los Angeles Times (latimes.com)

By Steve Lopez

 

Everybody's got a horror story about a bureaucratic nightmare, but if you can top this one, call me collect at your earliest convenience.

Ann Collard was seven months pregnant with her third child in June when an abatement notice came from the Glendale Fire Department. She and her husband, Mike, were ordered to clear some foliage and maintain 5 feet of "vertical clearance between roof surfaces and overhanging portions of trees."


FOR THE RECORD:
Lopez column: Steve Lopez's column in Wednesday's California section had an incorrect Web address for a site started by a Glendale couple who want to revise the city's tree-trimming ordinance. The correct address is www.glendaletreefines.com



The Collards knew their oaks and sycamores needed a trim. And so they talked to neighbors, did a little research and called a recommended tree trimmer based in Orange County.

For $3,000, the guy said, he'd remove about 15% of the foliage and they'd be in the clear.

The Collards asked if a permit was necessary.

Not at all, said the licensed trimmer, who told the Collards he'd done lots of work in Glendale.

On the third day of the three-day job, the city's urban forester happened to be in the neighborhood, and noticed the tree trimmer doing his thing.

"She saw what was happening and said, 'Stop! Cease and desist!' " says Mike, a work-at-home software and computer guy.

Glendale has an indigenous tree protection ordinance that dates to the 1980s. It was enacted to discourage developers and homeowners from bulldozing or hacking trees willy-nilly. Earlier this year, because of citizen complaints that native trees were still being ruined, the city approved more restrictions and bigger fines.

None of which the Collards knew about.

They now admit that had they read the Fire Department notice closely, they would have seen in small print that a free permit was required to trim oak and sycamore branches larger than 1 inch in diameter. But it was an understandable oversight.

A week after her first visit, the urban forester was back, telling the Collards an arborist would come by soon to assess the damage. The Collards recall being told they might want to hire an attorney.

"That's when we realized the gravity of the situation," says Ann. "I was pregnant and crying, but it didn't help."

In August, the Collards got a visit from the arborist. She looked at the trees, took measurements and jotted down notes.

How bad could it be? The Collards began to anticipate the possibility of a fine, but it wasn't as if the trees were mauled. They looked pretty good, in fact.

Finally, on Oct. 1, a letter arrived. It was from Glendale's Neighborhood Services administrator.

"Dear Owner," it began. "The city of Glendale is committed to maintaining a community with quality streetscapes that include the care and well-being of protected indigenous trees."

The letter informed them they had improperly pruned 13 trees, some of them on city property because they were near the street, and some on their own property. The fine was listed on Page 2, where the Collards were informed they would be charged "two times the value of the damaged tree(s)."

"Total: $347,600."

"I about passed out," says Ann.

She'd been worried they might get fined as much as, say, $3,000.

"But this wasn't like 'Oh no, we won't be able to go on that vacation we were planning,' " she said.

Fortunately, the city did not ask for the Collards' newborn son as part of the settlement. But the prospect of financial ruin had the former high school sweethearts wondering if they could serve jail time instead of taking out a second mortgage.

The Collards began dialing City Hall for help.

"Is there somebody who could adjust the amount?" Ann recalls asking, without ever getting an answer.

"But even if they met us halfway, that's $170,000. We can't pay that, either."

Ann points out that White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was fined $250,000 for perjury, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators in the case of CIA operative Valerie Plame. She adds, with appropriate exasperation, that Glendale Memorial Hospital drew a $25,000 fine in October for a medical error in which "a person was killed."

The Collard home is in a relatively high danger zone for wildfire, so I can understand why the Fire Department told them they needed to trim back flammable plants. But if the city's going to go after anybody, they'd be better off citing the Collards' next-door neighbor, whose branches are perilously close to the house.

"It's ridiculous," said Frank Ramos, who lives across the street and can't believe City Hall could leave the Collards hanging like this. The yard looks good, he said. It's not like the trees were butchered. He said he'd have done the same thing in their shoes. "They're a nice couple."

The Collards are $1,200 in to an attorney who got hold of the arborist's report, which alleged they'd had up to 60% of the foliage whacked on some trees. The trimmer used spiked shoes, too. A no-no.

The Collards are sorry they didn't know about the required permit, but they dispute the 60% allegation and have before-and-after pictures to argue their point.

The report also said some of the trees were worth as much as $100,000. I'd like to go on the record as being in favor of trees, but if the Collards really have more than $1 million worth of trees, maybe they should declare their property a national forest and secede from Glendale entirely.

And how about that team of geniuses who bloodlessly produced a $347,600 fee notice and blithely stuck it in the mail without a single person saying, "Hey, wait a minute. Isn't this insane?"

The Collards called City Hall repeatedly to see if someone might offer them an option other than robbing a bank. When they got no satisfaction, they started a website, www.glendaletreefines.com, to lay out their case and call for revision of the tree-cutting ordinance.

Glendale residents quickly weighed in, slamming City Hall.

"Absolutely ridiculous," wrote Stephen.

"Two words -- common sense!" wrote Jonathan.

The Collards soon found out they weren't the only victims of excessive fines.

"I was fined $175,000 for cutting two sycamores after my architect contacted the city and was warned not to touch oak trees," says John Oppenheim, a registered nurse and single dad. "I am not a criminal, though because of a string of bad advice, I did make a mistake."

Only after the tree fine story got some attention did city officials step up. City Councilman John Drayman told me the Collards shouldn't have to pay a nickel. Councilman Frank Quintero called the whole thing a fiasco and an embarrassment.

When I got hold of Mayor Ara Najarian, he said I was the first to learn that City Atty. Scott Howard had decided to drop the case against the Collards.

So they're completely off the hook?

For now, Najarian said. But they'll be called in for a conference at some point.

And might they still be fined?

Possibly, he said, but nowhere near $347,600.

How much, then?

Maybe $10,000, maybe less, Najarian said. And maybe the tree trimmer should get stuck with the bulk of the fine.

Yeah, and maybe the city should apologize to the Collards, pay their lawyer fees, and clear the deadwood out of City Hall.

steve.lopez@latimes.com