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Developer should lose building permits over illegally chopped trees, L.A. officials say

Los Angeles officials cracked down on a Brentwood developer Monday, saying he should be barred for the next five years from building on a site where three trees were illegally chopped down.

Nazario Sauceda, director of the city's Bureau of Street Services, issued a four-page letter saying Sullivan Equity Partners deliberately ripped out three "protected" trees -- two live oaks and a towering western sycamore -- that were supposed to be preserved on its property.

Developer Sam Shakib, the company's managing partner, had permission from the city to remove dozens of trees from the property as part of a plan for constructing two 14,948-square-foot mansions. But as part of that permit, Shakib was supposed to safeguard other trees on the sprawling 12-acre site.

The three trees, Sauceda concluded, were removed not by accident "but intentionally to provide better access to the property or in some other fashion enable easier development."

The decision provides a major win to Brentwood neighborhood activists, who contend the city improperly approved development in a canyon lined with chaparral, coastal sage scrub and a stream bed. They had been pressing urban forestry officials to revoke the building permits for the Sullivan Canyon mansion project, saying it would send a message to developers across the city.

"This is a victory for every neighborhood in our city and for the rule of law," said Gideon Kracov, the attorney who represents the neighbors.

Kracov praised Mayor Eric Garcetti's administration and the street tree agency for setting an "important precedent" on tree preservation. But Patrick Mitchell, the lawyer for the developer, called the city's penalty "utterly draconian" and "the functional equivalent of giving someone the death penalty for a speeding ticket."

Mitchell's client plans to file an appeal of Monday's decision to Garcetti's appointees on the Board of Public Works. "The city, apparently due to political pressure, is treating my client much harsher than similar or more severe tree cutting cases in the same city department," he said.

Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Brentwood, had urged city officials to revoke the permits, sending a staffer to make his case at an administrative hearing last month. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization, had also pressed for the building permits to be rescinded.

Shakib and his business partner, Sean Namvar, had argued for months that a landscaping crew had removed the three trees by mistake. The company had obtained permission from the city to remove 56 "protected" trees on the site -- live oaks, black walnuts and other trees that carry an elevated status under the city's urban forestry rules.

Although three trees were mistakenly cut, four others that were supposed to come down did not, Mitchell said.

Twitter: @davidzahniser

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