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Vanishing Palms Pose Puzzle ands Prompt Feud

Time Staff Writer

The sudden disappearance of six stately, historic palm trees along Sherman Way in Reseda has Los Angeles street maintenance officials and merchants baffled about who cut them down and at odds as to who should replace them.

The Mexican fan palms, 60 to 70 feet high, vanished between a Saturday evening and Monday morning more than a month ago from the south side of Sherman Way, between Balboa Boulevard and Louise Avenue, say property owners and workers on the block. Landowners and residents said they did not cut down the trees and have no idea who did.

“I worked Saturday, and the trees were right there in front all the way up to the corner, about five or six of them,” said Michael Goodman, owner of a sports-car service shop in the 16900 block of Sherman Way. “They must have come and done it on Sunday because when I got here Monday, they were all gone.”

Thought City Cut Trees

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Cabot Abel, who owns a dental building on the block of businesses and offices, said the tree-cutters apparently used heavy equipment, which also broke two of his windows and some lawn sprinklers. He said he assumed the city had felled the trees and caused the damage, and his first thought was to call City Hall to collect.

“I would never have called them but to file a complaint about the broken windows, only because the glass costs $200 a sheet.”

But city officials said they did not cut down the trees and were just as baffled as the other property owners over who might have done it, and why: Did someone want motorists to have a better view of businesses? Did a construction crew make a mistake?

Inquiry ‘at a Dead End’

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Anna Sklaar, a spokeswoman for the street maintenance bureau, said Abel’s call prompted an investigation in which people on the block were questioned, but that city workers soon concluded the inquiry was “at a dead end because no one saw anything.”

The city’s solution was to send notices to property owners declaring they had 14 days to remove the stumps and “replace the palm tree you removed.” The notice included a recommendation from the Department of Public Works that the new trees could be smaller, eight to 10 feet high.

An assistant to Sklaar said the parkway and the trees are considered to be owned by both the city and property owners. Those owners were sent notices that they are in violation of a city ordinance making it a misdemeanor to remove trees on public property without permission. The penalty is six months to a year in jail or a fine of $500 to $1,000, or both.

She said the city estimates the cost of replacing the trees is about $250 each, not counting labor, and each owner would be responsible for replacing one tree. The city does not expect to share any of the expense, despite its part ownership of the trees.

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This didn’t sit too well with some of the property owners.

Jill and Al Freiberg, who run the Sherman Room restaurant, said they think the city is being unreasonable.

“Why should we have to pay for something we didn’t do?” said Jill Freiberg, who added that the trees were in there when she left the restaurant shortly before midnight that Saturday. “We’re very angry,” said her husband. “They claim it’s their property, and then they want us to pay for it.”

Trees Sorely Missed

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Goodman said he plans to contact his attorney before forking over money to replace the trees.

What everyone does seem to agree on, however, is that the trees are sorely missed.

The palms on Sherman Way are an elegant remnant of the street’s past. “It was called the $500,000 boulevard,” said Elva Moline, a curator for the San Fernando Valley Historical Society. Laid out in 1911, it originally was a three-lane street, 22 miles long and 200 feet wide, with the Pacific Electric Railway running down the middle, Moline said. It was intended to link all of the town sites in the so-called Tract 1,000, the largest of which were Van Nuys, Reseda and Canoga Park.

“Most of Tract 1,000 was owned by Harry Chandler. Sherman Way was his attempt to re-create the Paseo de la Reforma which he had seen in Mexico City.” A spokeswoman for the Reseda Chamber of Commerce said the palms were planted there about 50 years ago.

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‘I Do Miss Them’

Dr. Gray Berg, a dentist who practices in Abel’s building, lamented their loss.

“I do miss them, and there are two aspects to this,” Berg said. “First there is a big gap in the line of trees, which looks terrible, and second, just how long do you think it takes to grow (trees that size)? Who would have the gall to come and cut them down?”

Al Freiberg said he is convinced the removal of the palms has hurt the restaurant’s business: “You would be surprised. People think this place is a greasy spoon because there are no palms on the parkway.

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“Customers complain, and I want to ask the city, ‘Would you mind putting a bush or a shrub or something small, and we’ll nurse it back to health?’ ”

Abel said he believes the estimated $250-per-owner cost would be worth it to replace the trees, but added he is unhappy that the city is dropping its investigation to find the palm-chopping culprits.

“I’ve been involved in some funny and bizarre things but this--well it’s the ‘Case of the Missing Trees,’ ” he said laughingly, in a television announcer’s voice. “It’s just so ridiculous I can’t believe it really happened.”


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