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OAK INSPECTORS : Santa Clarita Officials Take a Hike to Check Out Trees Imperiled by Luxury Homes

Times Staff Writer

Santa Clarita city officials Monday spent a holiday that honors a President known for chopping down trees by hiking through a canyon where a developer wants to cut down 10 of them.

The trees are 100-year-old California oaks that stand as high as 40 feet, much larger than the cherry tree that, legend has it, was axed by George Washington.

Some city residents and council members believe the majestic oaks can be spared if a luxury home project in the area is redesigned.

Destroying oak trees has become increasingly controversial in fast-growing areas such as the Santa Clarita Valley, Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks. Residents in those areas believe that preserving oak trees maintains the rustic nature of their cities.

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“They are important to a lot of people here. If you can save them, why not save them?” asked Santa Clarita Mayor Howard P. (Buck) McKeon.

Took Field Trip

About 40 people, including City Council members, planning commissioners and developer representatives, hiked a mile-long trail through a small canyon Monday morning to examine the trees and measure the circumference of each one.

The two-hour field trip was a prelude to a City Council meeting Wednesday at which members are to discuss the 42-acre project, which involves building 20 four-bedroom homes south of Lost Canyon Road near Sand Canyon Road. Each home will sit on two acres and sell for about $500,000.

Virtually all of the permits needed to start the project, including permission to cut down the trees, were granted by Los Angeles County officials before Santa Clarita became a city on Dec. 15.

But the City Council passed a moratorium on removing oak trees, an action that angered the Briggs family of Los Angeles, which has owned the land since the mid-1940s, and their developer, Eugene Schiappa of Redondo Beach.

Hope Briggs, who heads the partnership that owns the land, said the family has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over eight years to plan the project. She said a further delay of two to three years would put such a financial strain on the family that the project might be scrapped.

“The oaks are an asset to the property and we’ve certainly tried to save them. But it isn’t fair to turn us down now,” she said.

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Briggs and Schiappa argued that the project is the best design possible. They said they have offered to plant small oak trees along a road through the project to make up for the ones they want to cut down.

Rotting Trees?

One unresolved issue is whether the oaks are even worth saving. James Shanahan, a tree expert hired by the Briggs family, said at the site Monday that they are only in fair condition. He said some of the trees are rotting and infested with termites.

But Tom Rossberger, a forester with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who also went on the field trip, said the trees are in good condition and that termites often infest oaks.

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One question no one could answer was whether the city can legally cancel permission that was granted before the municipality existed. McKeon said city officials have not requested a legal opinion on the issue and do not plan to, because they would like to settle the dispute amicably.

McKeon and other city officials said several changes might spare the trees and allow the project to be built, including changing the path of a road through the project, narrowing the road or changing its slope.

But representatives of the Briggs family said that such changes might cause other problems, such as making access to the area more difficult for fire engines.

“There are safety regulations and just good engineering rules you should abide by,” said E.L. Bolden Jr., an engineer hired by the family.

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