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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

"Value to the owner of the hedge, such as privacy, shade, temperature reduction or other environmental benefits, are not considered in the [new] Hedge Height Claim process," wrote city planner Carolyn Martin in a February 2011 memorandum that also aimed to strengthen the government's ability to punish residents who don't obey tree-killing orders.

Believing they were being wronged, Pahnos and Stephens refused to destroy their trees. In response, the city issued $1,000-per-day citation fines and filed formal courthouse charges that seek to imprison both of them for six months.

"They want to put us in jail," said an incredulous Stephens. "Can you imagine putting us in jail over trees and a view?"

Pahnos and Stephens: Leave our trees alone!
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Pahnos and Stephens: Leave our trees alone!

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In January, Superior Court Judge Marjorie Laird Carter dismissed the misdemeanor charges and ridiculed the city tactics, saying, "I would think most homeowners . . . would throw up their hands and say, 'What the heck are we supposed to do?'"

Three days later, the city sent Pahnos and Stephens another threatening letter. Using Newport Beach attorney Charles Mollis, the couple then filed a motion seeking a court order prohibiting future harassment. The city's response? Incredibly, officials refiled the already-dismissed criminal charges in an attempt to shop for a favorable verdict with a different judge, former prosecutor Andre Manssourian. Tired of the games that have resulted in legal bills and personal turmoil, the couple this month filed a lawsuit for damages against the city.

"I don't blame the Phelpses," said Pahnos. "They want to increase the value of their home by getting a better view than they paid for when they bought their house. I can understand that, but what I don't understand is why the city of Laguna Beach hasn't been fair. We'd just like to enjoy our retirement in peace."

This column appeared in print as "A View to a Killing: The nanny state is alive in Laguna Beach, where officials slyly back a new 'right' to an ocean view for the well-connected who want trees killed."

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