City Tree Trimmers Leave Trail of Anger, Euphoria

Times Staff Writer

On a recent morning, residents of Carpenter Street in North Hollywood were drawn from their houses by the sounds of chain saws, tractors and a yellow machine that can best be described as the industrial-size equivalent of a paper shredder.

What they saw spurred several of them into states of shock and fury, and they began shouting comments such as “murderers” to the men at work on their street. But others were almost euphoric, nodding approvingly because their calls for help had finally been answered by the men atop cherry pickers.

Their street’s trees, symbols of suburbia, were being trimmed.

Or butchered, depending on who you talk to.

“They are like tree murderers,” said one woman, a 24-year resident of Carpenter Street. “Once they got through with my tree it was the ugliest, most massacred thing I ever saw in my life. It’s disgraceful what they did to my block.”

Like Military Haircut

The scene is repeated daily in communities across the San Fernando Valley as city trimming crews arrive to give their version of a military haircut to rows of trees.


Street tree trimming is one of the most frequent service demands by citizens, officials say. In the Valley alone, there is a backlog of 116,000 tree-trimming requests--more than double the number in the rest of the city, according to Robert Kennedy, superintendent of the street tree division of the Department of Public Works.

The Valley’s staggering backlog translates into about a three-year waiting list, Kennedy said.

“The parkway tree is right in front of your house and represents the most visible aspect of city government,” Kennedy said. “When they see it trimmed, city government is working for them.”

But once limbs are eliminated, the bare results prompt opinionated responses from property owners. Take, for instance, a sampling of Carpenter Street residents, where long trunks and skeletal branches have replaced lush carob trees:

“They have raped the neighborhood, raped my front yard,” Michael Cooke, a 10-year resident, said. “I just can’t believe what they have done. The big trees are the reason I stay here. Trees give us oxygen, trees give us shade. Now it doesn’t look like my block anymore.”

“Why can’t they balance the cutting?” Charles Hoyt, a 35-year resident, asked. “Why can’t they leave the foliage? The branches? You have to understand this is the only tree in my yard and, all of a sudden, in less than an hour, it’s practically gone.”

“I’m so thrilled about this. I’ve been trying to get them to do this for years,” said a 40-year-resident who did not want her name used because she did not want her neighbors to know she disliked the street trees. “As far as I’m concerned the trees weren’t that pretty anyway. I wish they would cut them back even farther.”

“Look, you and I can say the street looks bad, the street looks good,” Robert Carcia, a 25-year-resident, said. “But the bottom line is they have to be cut because this street was a hazard. And, let’s face it, they are city trees.”

The street trees are owned by the property owners. But maintenance falls under the city’s jurisdiction, Kennedy said, because they are planted within the city’s “land dedication,” the area reserved for public use.

In most suburban homes in the Valley, the dedication generally extends from three to seven feet from the curb, thus usually covering the parkway strip between the curb and sidewalk. In hillside areas, the dedication can extend as much as 30 feet from the curb.

Residents who may be tempted to sic their own chain saws on unruly street trees should be aware that it is a misdemeanor to trim, remove or plant a new tree within the city dedication, Kennedy said.

To legally do so requires a permit from the city’s Street Tree Division. The permit generally releases the city from liability in case, for example, branches fall and damage a car. Kennedy said fewer than 1% of residents with street trees apply for such permits.

To hire private tree-trimming crews costs $300 to $400 a tree, he said--so most people choose to wait years until the city comes around.

In emergencies--trees fallen through houses, on cars, lying across streets, or blocking street signs--immediate city action is taken, Kennedy said. Most everything else becomes part of the backlog.

“They only respond after the trees fall,” said George Creekmur of Reseda. “But we can’t get anyone out to prevent them from falling.”

Frustrated residents have circulated petitions, mailed letters and pestered City Council members’ offices regarding their overgrown maples, carobs and mulberries.

“We get dozens of complaints a week, dozens a week,” said James Winters, field deputy for Councilman Ernani Bernardi. “We get phone calls, we get letters. Right now, I’ve got seven right here. It’s one of the No. 1 complaints in this office.”

Spearheads Campaign

After Creekmur’s tree-trimming request went unanswered, he spearheaded a campaign among Enfield Avenue residents to write to Councilwoman Joy Picus.

Julie Gertler, Picus’ deputy in her Reseda district office, said the tree-trimming complaint “got to be such a major issue that we made a special presentation to Mrs. Picus to indicate just how serious a problem this was to the constituents.

“The parkway tree represents classic suburbia,” Gertler said. “It’s part of the quality of life in this community and people want us to take good care of their trees.”

Picus took $144,000 out of her 1984 capital improvement budget so that 1,064 trees, including Creekmur’s, could be trimmed, Gertler said.

Kennedy, who calls Los Angeles “a large urban forest,” said his problem is that there are 680,000 street trees in the city and only 107 tree trimmers.

Ideally, trees should be trimmed every two or three years, but the city’s parkway trees are trimmed only every seven or eight years, Kennedy said.

The backlog in the Valley has been mounting for several years because many of its trees, planted during the housing boom of the 1950s, have reached maturity. Some have never been trimmed, Kennedy said.

To begin whittling away at the backlog, he said, the city included $3 million for tree trimming in the 1985-86 budget, triple that budgeted the previous fiscal year.

He said city crews and subcontractors also are using a “grid” approach, instead of the previous tree-by-tree trim.

It is this new, more efficient method, in which an entire street of trees is trimmed at once, that seems to evoke sharp emotional responses. One resident likened the experience to “seeing your dog with all his hair shaved off.”

“When you work with the public, you just can’t win,” said Henry Cespedes, owner of a Panorama City tree-trimming firm that subcontracts its services to the city. “I have to be prepared for anything. Either they love you are they hate you.”

Cespedes said he was forced to enroll in an assertiveness training course to deal with residents.

“It’s hard to take the verbal abuse,” Cespedes said. “I’ve been called a butcher, a rapist, a hacker, an incompetent. They say I have no respect because I don’t live here. People have called police. I’ve seen women cry.”

But Cespedes and other trimmers are merely following directions.

Making trees look good, Kennedy said, is his department’s lowest priority. Trimming so that trees will stay safe for nearly a decade is its highest priority. At least, the workers do not leave cut branches around--they are pulverized by the shredding machine, whose high-pitched whine can be heard for blocks.

“The day we start trimming trees for aesthetic reasons is the day we have so much money we don’t know what to do,” Kennedy said. “It might be severe, but people have to remember that we are not going to be back for another eight years.”

And, by then, time will most likely have healed a tree-trim victim’s pain and anger.

“Now I look down my street and say, ‘it won’t be long before we will have to be calling again for the trimmers,’ ” Estelle Lieberman of Encino said. “Trees grow so fast, you know.”