Tree-Killing In Laguna Beach

[Moxley Confidential] The nanny state is alive in Laguna, where officials slyly back a new 'right' to an ocean view for the well-connected who want trees killed

The majestic trees surrounding one 10th Avenue oceanview Laguna Beach home perched above Pacific Coast Highway were planted the same year Elizabeth Taylor, Edward Kennedy and Johnny Cash were born—in the months before Adolf Hitler ruled Germany, Japan occupied Shanghai and Franklin D. Roosevelt toppled President Herbert Hoover. At 80 years old, the trees have outlived Taylor, Kennedy, Cash, the Cold War and the New Deal, and on a recent afternoon, they showed no outward signs of looming natural death. But these trees have startlingly selfish and relentless enemies, including an Orange County Register reporter, determined to kill them.

It's certainly not breaking news that Laguna Beach residents often transform their otherwise-tranquil Southern California coastal paradise into a battlefield over the nation's latest, most elitist entitlement claim: the "right" to a Pacific Ocean view. The decades-old Trees vs. Views War has even caused bona fide combat casualties. Over the years, more than a few residents have snuck onto a neighbor's property under cloak of darkness to poison trees or saw off branches.

Regulating conduct in this highly emotional conflict isn't easy. But the politicians and bureaucrats who run Laguna Beach have quietly decided to adopt a newfound right to a view and declared that it trumps all other considerations. The move—done on the sly because neither federal nor state law recognizes such a right—converted this visually gorgeous village of 23,000 residents into an ugly, Orwellian nanny state.

There are a few factual scenarios you would think everyone could agree on in this war. For example, it would be wrong for someone to plant trees that wreck a neighbor's existing view—which obviously diminishes property values as well as impacts aesthetics. But what if a new neighbor moves in, complains that trees planted on your property decades earlier are partially blocking his view, and demands you chop them down or shape them to suit his desires?

For Laguna Beach residents David Pahnos and Barry Stephens, a retired couple, the last scenario isn't fictional, but rather a very real nightmare. City officials have ordered them to kill healthy, 80-year-old trees on their property so that a well-connected couple that bought a home behind theirs can enjoy better ocean views. Pahnos, a former robotics engineer with ties to NASA, and Stephens, a former public-school teacher, have refused. They aren't being unreasonable, they say. Sure, they love the shade, but the trees serve an undeniable public-safety purpose.

Because many 10th Avenue homes were built with shallow anchoring and on a watershed that hurls 130,000 gallons of water per minute down the hillside during storms, the trees' roots not only stabilize the public road, protecting it from collapsing, but also keep the cottage owned by Pahnos and Stephens from crashing into the house beneath theirs and causing an avalanche of homes all the way to PCH.

Wayne E. Phelps, a Dana Point mortgage broker, and his wife, Erika Ritchie Phelps, an Orange County Register reporter who used to cover Laguna Beach and continues to enjoy personal relationships with a long list of city bureaucrats, don't care about the consequences. Starting in July 2010, they hired Steve Kawaratani, a well-connected local lobbyist, and began filing "Hedge Height Claims" against their neighbors. Their goal was entirely selfish and misguided. By forcing Pahnos and Stephens to chop down trees, the property the Phelpses bought in 2004 would obtain what it hadn't had since 1932: nearly unobstructed ocean views.

There would, of course, be two immediate consequences. First, the Phelpses would reap a massive financial windfall because the property would instantly leap in value. Meanwhile, the loss of the tree canopy would destroy the charm and value of Pahnos and Stephens' home. And here's where the senselessness comes in: These trees and roots also help to stabilize the Phelpses' home, keeping their property from sliding down the hill toward the ocean during a significant rainstorm.

"Without the roots of these trees, all these houses on 10th Avenue could come crashing down on one another if there were a landslide," said Pahnos, who noted that the neighborhood is a historic landslide site. "It would be a disaster for everyone."

At first, city bureaucrats repeatedly visited the neighborhood and sided against the Phelpses, who eventually got the matter before the city's Design and Review Board (DRB), for which lobbyist Kawaratani once ran as chairman. The DRB is charged with approving a homeowner's request for new construction or the alteration of existing property. Pahnos and Stephens weren't seeking any permits. Nevertheless, the DRB decided to treat the Phelpses' tree complaint as though it were a permit request to alter property they don't own. At a public hearing, the board gave the Phelpses and Kawaratani special seats and a microphone so they could explain how they've been cheated. Pahnos politely asked to address the board for the same length as the Phelpses had been given, but he was told to shut up and sit down in the back of the room with members of the general public.

In the aftermath and despite vocal community support to keep the trees, the DRB upheld the complaints. So did the City Council, whose members puzzlingly championed the right of the Phelpses to have their ocean views "restored." In the middle of the case, city bureaucrats amended the Hedge Height rules to "ensure fairness." In reality, the new regulations state that in deciding tree and view disputes, officials cannot consider any impact removal of trees will have on a tree owner's property—including potential landslides, public safety and loss of equity.

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11 comments
snp_drgn
snp_drgn

Killing a live tree that gives off oxygen and helps the plant somehow does not seem to justify someone to have a view of the ocean. The story states the trees are 80 years old, therefore the trees have been there longer than the resident who is complaining of their lack of an ocean view. If it such an issue why did they buy a house that already had an obstructed view. They had a choice to live anywhere yet they choose to live there. The city seems to have a slanted view based on financial reasons only. The outcome may be harsh and unreasonable and they should be ashamed of their actions.

Holly Terrell
Holly Terrell

Really? You Patty Barnett are just a mess. How bout that?

Patty Barnett
Patty Barnett

Annettelap is right. These trees are a hot mess.

KELLYWASKILLEDBYYOU
KELLYWASKILLEDBYYOU

Whenever I think of Laguna I think of Chief Sellers.

Whenever I think of Chief Sellers I think of Kelly Thomas.

Justice for Kelly Thomas

annettelap
annettelap

First I want to say that my husband and I  like reading the OC weekly - it's one of our favorite local publications. We are liberal minded and do not like to kill anything, but here Mr.  Moxley is so wrong that we have to comment. 

First of all Laguna is not  entirely populated by the ultra rich, there are residents like us ,who run a small  local business and are just extremely lucky to  live in this beautiful place for over thirty years. We understand that Mr. Moxley's job as a reporter is to stir emotions but to do so by twisting a story to make it sound like a case of the well to do against the not well connected is so off base he ought to be ashamed of himself.  We have had an almost identical situation with a couple across the street. The two gentlemen purposely blocked our view and were entirely uncooperative to our requests , while they enjoyed a completely unobstructed 180 degree view. 

My husband and I are neither  wealthy nor well connected. We also had to go through the process and the DRB decided in our favor. It was sad that we could not work things out with couple across the street.

With regards to Mr. Moxley's story, I can see from the picture that this tree has not been maintained at all. There is no attempt by the owners to trim it back or lace it out and I can totally understand the position of the people who's view is destroyed. The whole argument over who or what was here first is total  nonsense - the only indigenous vegetation here is coastal chaparral.   There were no tall trees or palms on the hillsides of Laguna. We are not proposing every tree should be cut down, who doesn't like a tree? But we are for increased responsibility of property owners to  maintain the vegetation on their land as to not have  a destructive impact on the views of neighboring properties. This whole issue is very complicated in our city  and our council and boards try their best to find solutions and inevitably someone will not like their decisions. But to write a story that is so slanderous to our city officials and residents, like Mr Karawatani, who we do not know personally, but is a lifelong Laguna resident and former owner of our local nursery and to call him a lobbyist for the well connected is nothing more then proof that good journalism is hindered by the fact that you need to stir emotions rather then stay with the facts. Shame on the couple that insisted on blocking their neighbors views.

P.S. and what exactly  do Elizabeth Taylor, Ted Kennedy, Johnny Cash or Adolf Hitler have to do with being a good neighbor?

 

BillxT
BillxT topcommenter

Analagous to building houses next to MCAS Miramar (of course, NAS then) in the 70s then complaining about the noise of the jets.  Maroons.

socialdem
socialdem

 @annettelap

 Shut your pie hole crazy!  The issues are not "complicated" and neither are you.  You are a dumb ass Laguna Beach snob. You don't read OC Weekly...you read this story. I bet you are a republican or a teabagger.  Laguna Beach is not liberal. I know....I lived and worked there so like I say shut-it old lady. How bout that?

BillxT
BillxT topcommenter

 @annettelap

 If it's my tree on my property, I'll maintain it, or not, as I want. The law says if my tree protrudes into your property you can do as you wish with that portion.

annettelap
annettelap

 @socialdem Well much to your surprise I am neither an old lady nor a republican or teabagger - and you my friend give us social democrats a bad name by you vile poor language and pubescent response.

annettelap
annettelap

 @BillxT If the law gives you the right to be a lousy neighbor does not mean you have to exercise it!

 
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