State officials hope today to settle a dispute between transportation engineers and Woodland Hills homeowners that for five months has stalled the replacement of trees that once formed the gateway to Warner Center.
At issue is a plan to replant 25 trees next to Topanga Canyon Boulevard north of Burbank Boulevard that a Department of Transportation work crew chopped down by mistake.
The row of mature, 15-year-old ash trees was removed May 10 by Caltrans workers. They had found that roots from one of the trees was beginning to lift the sidewalk next to the street.
The removal of the trees prompted a flurry of protests from Woodland Hills motorists and residents. A few days later, Caltrans officials acknowledged that they had erred in removing the trees without first trying to save them.
After that, Woodland Hills nursery owner John Boething offered to donate 25 replacement trees and a Topanga Canyon Boulevard condominium association agreed to replant them.
At first, Caltrans officials agreed to allow the replanting, provided that the condominium owners promised to keep the trees trimmed in the future.
But the compromise unraveled when transportation officials later demanded that the condominium group assume all future liability for damage that the trees may cause next to the boulevard, which is designated State Highway 27.
“Our responsibility is to reduce the state’s liability,” James L. McCullough, a senior Caltrans maintenance engineer, told residents in September. “Caltrans would not plan on coming in and replacing the damaged sidewalk on a regular basis.”
Leaders of the condominium group, the Warner Woods Owners Assn., said they could not accept permanent liability for the trees because of state laws that govern the operation of condominium associations.
“We can’t have a contract longer than one year,” said Jamie Gonzales-Duke, secretary of the Warner Woods board of directors. “We can’t sign something with Caltrans that commits us to a long-term, indefinite type of obligation.”
Caltrans has been urged to soften its position by representatives of state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) and state Assemblywoman Marian W. La Follette (R-Northridge).
Today’s meeting between La Follette and Jerry Baxter, Caltrans’ Southern California director, was scheduled after La Follette complained directly to Robert K. Best, the Sacramento-based director of Caltrans.
The requirement of total liability by homeowners “is not acceptable,” La Follette said in a letter to Best.
La Follette, who termed the trees’ removal “a significant loss to the entire community of Woodland Hills,” said the trees have a value as shade and beauty that “is greater than their cost in dollars.”
“This section of Topanga now looks like a wasteland and Caltrans must take credit for returning this area to the desert conditions that existed in Los Angeles prior to efforts by so many to turn this area into a green, growing oasis,” she said.
A spokesman for Best said Tuesday that Caltrans has not yet decided whether to waive the department’s rules over the boulevard’s trees.
Baxter could not be reached for comment, although he sent a letter to La Follette on Tuesday that stated “it is my hope we can resolve this issue when we meet together Oct. 12.”
Gonzales-Duke said he and his 105 neighbors are equally hopeful. He said Caltrans must dig out the roots of the chopped-down trees before the condominium group’s two full-time gardeners can begin planting Boething’s replacement trees--probably crepe myrtles.
He said Warner Woods residents have sweated through the summer without the shade and privacy offered by the noise-absorbing trees.
“The looks of the place change dramatically when you no longer have a green barrier out there,” he said. “We shouldn’t have any trouble helping the state maintain the trees once they’re replanted.”