Ash at Root of Leaky Problem for Montrose Resident

Times Staff Writer

A Glendale resident plagued by broken and leaking sewer and water lines says the root of his problems are an aging Modesto ash tree and the city's staunch refusal to remove it--even though other cities and the state have declared such trees to be a nuisance.

Richard A. Yanez, a landscape architect, claims that for seven years a city-owned ash tree in front of his Montrose residence has repeatedly uprooted the sidewalk and a stone retaining wall and clogged and broken his sewer and water lines.

He said it has damaged a water main, which is leaking 20 gallons of water an hour, leaving the sidewalk slippery with moss and algae.

Yanez estimates that the tree has caused more than $3,300 in damage to his property.

Water Bills Have Tripled

Since the leak began in June, Yanez said, his water bills have almost tripled, forcing him to turn the water on at the meter each time he needs it.

"It is a real pain to have to run out to the parkway every time you want to use the bathroom or the kitchen sink," Yanez said.

In June, he filed a claim for damages against the city; the City Council denied the claim this month.

For years, Yanez said, he has pleaded with the city to remove the tree. He said he has offered to replace it at his own expense with a different kind of tree. But the city has denied his requests, saying it is against city policy to remove a tree that is healthy and does not pose a danger to residents.

Last week, he filed a $1,500 small-claims suit against the city. City officials said they believe this is the first such suit against Glendale, although damage claims have been filed and rejected by the city in the past.

Other Cities Remove Trees

Other cities, including neighboring Burbank, have removed ash trees and other species that have invasive root systems from their parkways. Even the state recommends against the use of Yanez's troublesome ash, known formally as fraxinus velutina.

But Glendale officials maintain that tree roots clogging pipes and uprooting sidewalks is a "natural phenomenon" that can't be helped.

The swollen roots of the tree in a narrow parkway at 1451 Broadview Drive, where Yanez, 27, and his mother have lived since 1962, have pushed above the sidewalk, bulged out the curb and tilted a concrete-lined water meter box out of the ground.

The 35-year-old tree at the Yanez home is one of 283 Modesto ash trees owned by the city. Most of the trees were planted decades ago, said John Vos, city street superintendent.

While Vos admitted that the ash is known for its invasive roots, he said that other species cause similar problems. The city attempts to control the tree by occasionally pruning roots, which horticulturists said encourages root growth.

'Planted in Wrong Place'

"The Modesto ash historically and characteristically is a vigorous tree with an invasive root system," Yanez said. "That tree was planted in the wrong place. By not removing it, the city is causing me unreasonable and avoidable costs."

The city has ordered Yanez to repair the water leak, but he maintains that it is futile to continue repairing damage as long as the tree remains.

"The problem is not the broken water main but the tree itself," he said. Repairs have been made to the sidewalk, curb and utility lines about every 14 months since 1978, Yanez said.

Yanez said in his suit that he wants the court to declare the city liable for the damage. A hearing is scheduled Sept. 26 in Glendale Municipal Court.

Assistant City Atty. Scott Howard said city policy and the municipal code exempt the city from liability for damage to private property caused by the 33,500 city-owned trees. He said that such damage is "a routine problem throughout the civilized world" and that the city is not liable because it plays no role in "directing or controlling the root system." The city has denied all claims for tree damage.

Other Approaches

Other cities have taken a different approach.

Huntington Beach, in Orange County, has removed 2,800 ash trees from city parkways since 1972, when it found that the trees caused more than $1.5 million damage to streets, curbs and sidewalks, said John Van Oeffelen, director of the city's park tree and landscape program.

"There's no possible way to fit a tree like that into a small, four-foot parkway," he said.

In Newport Beach, about 50 city trees that have uprooted sidewalks and curbs have been removed each year over the last four years in that city's effort to reduce the number of liability suits filed against it.

Lloyd Dalton, Newport Beach public works director, said that only a few Modesto ash trees were planted in the city, in an area without sidewalks, but ficus and coral trees have caused similar root problems.

Burbank several years ago banned the Modesto ash for use as a street tree. Richard Inga, Burbank parks and recreation director, said: "We, like many other cities, had planted Modestos some time ago. But we started experiencing problems with aphids and root damage. We have since discontinued planting that particular species."

Inga said ash trees are routinely replaced by the city at the request of residents.

City Policy

In a report to Glendale officials recommending that the city deny Yanez's request, attorney Howard wrote: "It is the policy both of the City of Glendale and consistent with state law that trees not be removed" unless diseased, damaged or dangerous.

Still, California urban forester Jim Geiger said, "We don't recommend that one," when asked about the suitability of the Modesto ash as a parkway tree.

"It is not a good tree for the city because it does have a root system that tears up sidewalks," he said.

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