Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Views and Trees

In our area, many people value sky-line views over the trees and other foliage that surround their homes. This wasn't something I understood when my husband and I moved here 4 years ago.  We learned it the hard way not along afterwards, however, and I'm getting another lesson on the subject now.

One of our neighbors caught me on the fly last weekend as I was finishing up a long afternoon of work in our front garden.  She told me that our trees were interfering with her view and that we needed to do something to correct that.  In 2012, this same neighbor raised objections to our 60+ foot Eucalyptus tree, which we ultimately agreed to take out early in 2013 in the interest of neighborly goodwill.

The area occupied by the Eucalyptus before (left) and immediately after its removal


After the Eucalyptus was removed, the neighbor gave me before and after photos of her view and expressed happiness with the change.  I thought all was well so her new complaint came as a surprise.  Worse yet, standing in our driveway, she raised issues about virtually every tree in sight, even the small Bauhinia x blakeana next to the house.

The Bauhinia rises just slightly above our roof-line


Taken off-guard by the exchange, I responded that I was reluctant to cut back trees this year due to the drought and my desire to provide the plants below them as much shade as possible.  She pushed harder, suggesting that many of our trees should either come out or be severely cropped.  She pointed to what the neighbor across the street did to his Cotinus as an example of "neighborly" behavior.

Once these trees leaf out, they'll look a lot better but not all trees respond well to this kind of treatment


I got my back up at this point and said I'd look into getting my trees trimmed but I balked at taking out any trees or cutting them in the manner shown in the photo above.  In response, she declared that she didn't want to take the matter to the city's View Restoration Commission but was prepared to do so if we couldn't resolve her concerns.

Our city has what has been described as the most rigorous view preservation ordinance in the US.  After talking to my neighbor, I read through the 30-page document describing the procedure for implementing the ordinance, which addresses foliage taller than 16 feet (or the foliage owner's roof-line, whichever is less), if such foliage significantly interferes with the 1989 view from the complainant's property.  I talked to my husband, a few of our other neighbors, and some friends.  I did not invite the complaining neighbor to walk the property with me so she could point out every tree she wanted removed or cut back.  However, my husband and I did pull out the photographs she'd provided to us in 2013 and checked these against photos we took from the public trail that runs near her house.

These photos, taken by the complaining neighbor before and after our Eucalyptus tree was removed give us some indication of what her view may have looked like in 1989 and provide clues as to steps to "restore" that view (the marks in the photo on the right are her own, showing the space that was formerly occupied by the Eucalyptus)


After shedding some tears, I've told my husband I'm willing to remove one of the 2 Agonis flexuosa in the backyard border.  The second Agonis in that border, the healthier of the 2, sat behind the former Eucalyptus so I believe it's protected under the terms of the ordinance as that same area was obstructed when the Eucalyptus was in place.

Under the current plan, the tree on the left will go but the one on the right will be retained


In addition, we're going to thin our other 6 Agonis and reduce the crowns, but only so far as the reductions cause no material damage to the health and integrity of the trees.  We'll also cut back 2 Arbutus 'Marina' and our Magnolia.

This morning, I walked through the garden with representatives of 2 different tree services to obtain bids on the work.  I want to get it scheduled as soon as possible as winter, such as it is here, is clearly
coming to an end.  With the Santa Ana winds blowing, our temperatures are expected to soar to 90F (32C) this week.  I'll need to dig up the plants surrounding the tree slated for removal to minimize collateral damage and I expect a lot of additional work will be required to restore the surrounding area after-the fact, as was the case when the Eucalyptus was removed.

I haven't said anything to the complaining neighbor yet.  I'll let her know our plans when the work is scheduled.  If she isn't satisfied, then we'll deal with the View Restoration Commission if and when the time comes - and let the neighbor pay the cost of any further foliage removal and site restoration of our property, as provided by the ordinance.


All material © 2012-2015 by Kris Peterson for Late to the Garden Party

38 comments:

  1. Ugh, what a b**** your complaining neighbor is. When did she move in? It looks like the trees may have preceded her. You have my sympathies and a shoulder to cry on. My neighbor didn't complain about the trees which were there before he bought the place. He just had his tree service reach over when I was away and cut them down!

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    1. I'm really trying to be understanding of her POV but it's a challenge, especially when I thought I'd already met her more than half-way in the first round. She's lived in the neighborhood forever, like many of the people here. I believe she wants to regain the view she had when she and her husband bought their house. Unfortunately for her, the ordinance doesn't promise that but, unfortunately for us, it does back-track to 1989, which is more than 2 decades prior to our arrival. We didn't plant any of the trees in question but they were major contributors to our purchase decision.

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  2. I'd be mad if someone said I had to cut down my trees. Does the Commission say that she is responsible for the cost only if she isn't satisfied with the initial results? If they provide for her to pay for it, maybe you should wait and let her take it to them so she can pay for it. Maybe she'd change her mind.

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    1. No, if we told her we'd do nothing and she took out an application for view restoration with the city, the entire cost will be borne by her, starting with a $5000 application fee and including coverage of the lowest bid estimate on removal, any remediation/replanting costs authorized by the Commission, and insurance covering the work done. I considered playing hard-ball from the get-go, especially as I can't trust her not to come back yet again, but we're trying to meet her part-way. She's well known in the neighborhood for raising issues of this nature and it's my understanding that she's willing to put out the money for it, which wouldn't be trivial.

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  3. You live in such a beautiful area that comes with a unique ordinance that is prohibitive in having tall trees in your garden, a shame but hey ho....

    If your neighbour didn't complain I suspect you guys would have gone away with it. Sad to see some of your trees gone and it's annoying to have to incorporate these changes now when you weren't really planning on these works this year, or any year for that matter.

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    1. The exterior property, including the trees, was a large part of our purchase decision - if we'd known we face something like this, I'm not sure we would have bought this house. I'm not adverse to doing our part to maintain the trees but outright getting rid of the majority of them pushes the envelope too far. I also think the Commission needs to factor the drought and the value of trees during a drought into its decision process but I saw no reference to that consideration.

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  4. Oh Kris, so sorry for this painful business. I guess you neighbor is pondering how much her view is worth -probably plenty , when one considers how much is paid for a hotel room, and apartment or a house that has the word 'view' attached to it...and what a hack job on that Cotinus. I can tell you from experience that thing will probably be even larger this summer-they should have just coppiced it. I hope this gets resolved without more trauma.

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    1. I don't think she's planning to sell her place. I understand she's been on a campaign to enforce her rights since the ordinance was passed, if not before. It's just who she is, Kathy. I've been told she files all sorts of complaints. Too bad she doesn't have the same level of interest in gardening - she completely dismissed my concern with the drought and my interest in preserving established trees.

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  5. Ugh. I think I hate your neighbor. I used to live in a neighborhood with view-protection ordinances and I just found out (from a friend who still lives there) that one neighbor just went around and cut down, without permission, others' trees to improve his view. Gotta see how THAT is going to play out...

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    1. It's hard to believe that a community would allow a person to indiscriminately cut down trees on someone else's property but it's better than shooting the neighbor at least (as occurred in another Southern California community several months ago). I guess the ordinance in our community was intended to take matters out of an individual's hands and prevent behavior like that but basing decisions on a 25-year old status quo seems odd too.

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  6. Oh Kris :( this person sounds horrible. I would be absolutely gutted, just as it sounds like you are. The more I think about it the more unfuriating it is. How selfish! I mean, it's not as if all she sees is a wall of trees, right? I could never imagine asking such a thing of someone. Grrr.

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    1. There are a lot of trees on our 1/2 acre but that's also what drew us to the property in the first place. Among other things, my neighbor claimed that her view of the city lights is impaired by our trees. When I moved here, I was so pleased to look up and see the stars, which were hard to make out from our former location in town, but clearly my neighbor prefers man-made to nature-made views.

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  7. What an idiotic city and b**** of a neighbor. Trees should be encouraged. Have you ever seen the film "The Man Who Planted Trees"? They can have a profound (and positive) effect on local climate and should especially be encouraged in areas afflicted as yours is. And your neighbor's view is probably fine. Personally I think it was better with the Eucalyptus, but then I prefer trees to hazy views of concrete and steel. The fact that she complained about the Bauhinia raised it to the level of the absurd. What could that tiny thing possibly be blocking? And her pointing to those butchered Cotinus as a good example just proves her ignorance and stupidity. She's just a miserable old biddy who wants to make trouble. But maybe I'm sensitive to selfish, deluded old bullies because of my current employer. I'm sorry, I'm probably not making it easier for you, but this sort of thing just infuriates me. You have a saintly patience. I'm glad I grew up in the country.

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    1. I've been collecting articles and links addressing the value of trees since this most recent issue arose and plan to use those in our response to the View Restoration Commission, should matters come to that. I gave in on the Eucalyptus in part because there were early signs of a fungus attacking the roots, the trees are notorious for coming down here, and this one was very close to the house, but I still miss the shade it provided. A lot of people are crazy about our view and, while I enjoy watching the boats and seeing the city lights, I too would have preferred a greener view or a view of the open ocean to the more industrial view of the harbor we currently here. (We couldn't afford a house with a view on the other side of the peninsula.) My husband has suggested that maybe we should pick up and move but that's easier said than done...

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  8. Dear god. This is the most disgraceful, gut-wrenching thing I have ever read. Oh, Kris, if I were you, I would drag my heels at each and every instance I could to buy time and hope that she gives up. This ordinance doesn't mean that you have to rectify the views to 1989 levels instantly; these things take 'reasonable' time. So, force her to wait. Start the process (soon-ish) by trimming your least favourite tree and then really, really drag it out from there, one tree at a time. The process could then take many years, meaning if she's not happy, she can pay. I am sorry to be so crass and blunt, but this neighbour sounds so utterly wretched and horrible. A tree is a view. Perhaps if you drag the matter out over time - including the necessary step of mediation, as it appears that of the cases brought to the committee, 80% go through the mediation process.... If you were to say "look, I'm prepared to do X, Y and Z, and here is my timeline" that committee will err on your side. You then just quietly let those deadlines, provide a valid excuse ("I needed the money for unexpected bills", etc) then it is back to mediation. You say has lived there forever, so I am guessing she is on the 'wrong' side of 60. So dragging out the process - remember, this is your right as well - then nature will surely take its course with her; 're-setting the bar' (to use the legal parlance as the LA times put it) and thus sparing your trees. Good luck.... Matt

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    1. This woman has apparently been through the drill multiple times so she knows the ropes better than I do. My initial inclination was just to do the trimming that I'd put off but my husband feels we should try to meet the spirit of the ordinance. He wanted to take down 2 trees in our backyard border but I compromised at one. Another neighbor told me that the view restoration application process can indeed get drawn out for months, possibly a year, but in the meantime it requires a formal written response from us, visits to our property, a mediation session, and, assuming that doesn't fly, a public hearing, bids on the work to be performed, etc so it's a time sink and extends the misery, as well as potentially dividing people in our neighborhood. The cost issue ultimately isn't material as the complainant assumes all costs if the Commission rules in her favor. The main advantage of "going to the mats" is that it would (presumably) stop her from coming back yet again next year or the year after that by definitively setting the bar for both of us.

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    2. I really do feel for you. It makes me want to go and hug my neighbours - we all get along so well. I just can't imagine anyone else exerting their control over my home. It is truly the most perverse ordinance I have ever heard of, especially when all of the rest of California legislated in the opposite over 100 years ago, Matt :-(

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    3. Thanks for the healthy dose of sympathy, Matt. It's appreciated.

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  9. That stinks. There should be some type of arbitration/mediation process, where you can offer the previous removal of the eucalypt as evidence for your cooperation and then plead a case for saving as many trees as possible on the grounds at least of climate change, carbon sequestration, etc. View of city lights? Balancing her view of city lights against your need to be surrounded by the life and breath of trees -- your preference has as much value as hers (I'd say more, but that's personal opinion). And the agonis look so lacy too, not totally view obstructing. I really wish you could talk to someone at the City before you take down the trees to appease her -- it sounds like this neighbor will just keep coming back with demands to meet all her preferences, without any consideration of yours.

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    1. There is a mediation process if/when she files a view restoration application but at that point, the train has already left the station. I'd like to do enough now to get her off my back so I don't have to go through that whole process, potentially risking more trees as well as sapping my time and energy. She's entrenched in her world view - I have no doubt of that. I'd like to believe that the Commission would hear out arguments about the value of trees; however, my guess is I wouldn't be the first to advance those arguments and there's nothing in their procedure that led me to believe that's given weight in making their decisions. If, despite our current measures, we end up dealing with the Commission, I'll bring drought considerations into the discussion but that's a wild card at best. A friend of mine thinks I should mount a campaign to overturn the ordinance but, as it passed in 1989 by an large margin, I expect that the best that could be hoped for would be an amendment and politics is, for me at least, another energy-sucking enterprise. All that said, I won't give her any more than my husband and I have agreed on without taking her through the process and doing my best to counter her demands.

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    2. so sorry for all this, Kris. I really hope the pruning and removals you're contemplating quiet this woman for a while. Like you, I'd also prefer a quick solution to a long, drawn-out challenge process. I bet this neighbor is the kind of person who thrives on such a challenge. Let me know if you need help digging and moving plants.

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    3. Thanks for the kind offer, Denise, but I should be okay - at least so long as I don't manage to kill any plants moving them from the ground to pots and back again. My Yucca 'Bright Star' are my biggest concern. While I wait out the period until March 7th, when the work is now scheduled, I'm going to try to shift my focus to plans for redesign of what will become a somewhat sunnier area.

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  10. This is the worst thing I've ever heard of in terms of a neighbour having control over your property. I know how you must feel, when you chose your home because of the trees to be told they have to go is terrible. I think I agree with Matt, drag your heels a bit or at least make sure legally that she can't come back again. you might try telling her that views need frames and without them the view becomes meaningless but I'm sure she wouldn't listen. It must leave such a sour taste in the mouth. I think I prefer the raccoons to the neighbour!

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    1. I prefer the raccoons too! The ordinance certainly doesn't put concerns with the natural environment first but then that's not a cultural anomaly. We knew nothing about the law before we moved here and it has made us question whether we should stay. It may also explain why the last owner lived here just over one year.

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  11. Ouch :(
    Hope things get settled out without too much damage to you or the trees, Kris!

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  12. This is just horrible, I am so sorry Kris. I can't imagine.you are handling it with remarkable Grace.

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    1. I feel as though I'm operating under a gray cloud (even though it sunny and hot here). I'd like to get the whole thing behind me so I can enjoy the garden, which is difficult for me to do right now. I feel guilty every time I look at that Agonis tree.

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  13. Kris, thank you for being so rational about all of this. Buddha would be so proud of your capabilities to deal with this in equanimity.

    Isn't it so painful when we get surprises like this? We want to take it personally - and amazingly, you didn't do that! Bravo!

    Living with neighbors - a challenge!

    I think we are supposed to take the long view of this and realize that whole cycle of life thing - easier said than done and your blog post, as well as your additional comments have impressed me considerably!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Susan. It's too bad I don't feel entirely rational about the whole thing but it's good to know I come across as such. Hopefully, the neighbor will be satisfied.

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  14. How boring with a neighbor complaining !!!
    Hope neighbor bends with what you intend to do.
    I would be mad if my neighbor had such requirements.
    Good luck
    Mariana

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  15. Wow! This is a hard issue to deal with. I admire your willingness to bend, and your neighbor should do the same. I am sensitive to the issue of views. I was horribly offended when our view of rolling pastureland was obstructed when our neighbor built an enormous, unattractive three story workshop nine feet from our property line. The long side of his building became the view we saw when we looked out our front windows. I ended up spending a lot of money to plant an evergreen screen along that property line. I kept thinking surely there should be an ordinance against what he was doing, but there wasn't. He could not have done it if it were a dwelling place, but because it was deemed an "outbuilding", it was OK, despite the fact that his "outbuilding" dwarfed his own home!

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    1. There are strict building restrictions here too. I don't mind those (especially as mansionization is a virulent disease in SoCal) - it's the dictates about trees and other foliage that make me crazy, especially when a neighbor pushes to have trees removed or severely cropped in the middle of a horrible drought like the one we've been dealing with. The ordinance here doesn't seem to address environmental concerns.

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  16. WOW. That is very disturbing. I cannot understand why anyone would prefer views of a smog-filled city over the cooling shade of trees. What about erosion and soil retention? Is she going to pay when your yard starts washing down the slope? And, are native trees respected by the commision?

    In my yard, I am doing the exact opposite: planting cypress trees so the neighbors do not have an unobstructed view of my entire yard and the reservoir beyond. In my mind, my privacy trumps their view.

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    1. Apparently, views have always been a very hot topic on the peninsula I live on, although we knew nothing about the local ordinance on "view conservation" when we moved here. A view, especially an ocean view, contributes to real estate values so people fight over them. But I don't think the focus on views of the coast - in this case the LA harbor - shouldn't entirely override concerns with views of nature, creating ecosystems that support wildlife, etc. as this ordinance appears to do. However, if the matter ends up in the hands of the city's commission and removal of trees causes damage to the property, the complaining neighbor is responsible for the costs of remediation. The ordinance actually requires the complainant to purchase insurance to cover such eventualities.

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  17. Obviously I missed this post Kris. Your neighbour is hell of a lucky she doesn't have a crazy Scots woman living in your house - I don't think I could see myself being a considerate and polite as you and your OH are being.
    This is such a shame. Your trees add so much to your garden, they really do.
    It's the opposite here, large mature trees tend to have preservation orders slapped on them and can be a b***er to get permission to have it removed.
    I feel for you Kris, I really do.

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    1. Sadly, here's it's views, not trees, that the local population thinks is important, Angie. My husband is more even-keeled about the situation than I am.

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