It might be called the case of the vanishing oaks.
And if Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joy Picus has her way, solving it could send a local developer to jail.
The problem occurred at La Villa Nueva housing tract, at Cohasset Street in West Hills, where developer Ezra Raiten has built a gated community of 72 houses. The houses sell for up to $600,000 each.
Part of the agreement that allowed Raiten to build was his promise to move three large oak trees to a nearby vacant lot, which was to be turned into a park, according to city officials. But neighbors telephoned Picus in recent days to complain that the three trees, which for months had occupied large boxes outside the housing tract, had disappeared. Some neighbors speculated the big trees might have been sold.
"I am outraged at the developer of this property for his wanton disregard of the law," Picus said Thursday at a press conference outside the gates of the housing tract.
Raiten said in an interview he did not know what all the fuss was about, saying the trees had died a natural death.
"They died when we moved them," Raiten said, adding that he would replace them, as stipulated under an agreement he said he has with the city. He also said Picus never talked with him about her concerns.
Picus said the city Building and Safety Department will not issue any more certificates of occupancy for his houses until Raiten replaces the trees, at a ratio of two new oaks for every one that has vanished. A certificate of occupancy from the city is required before a sale can be completed. Most of the units at La Villa Nueva are vacant.
Picus also said she would ask the city attorney's office to prosecute Raiten on misdemeanor charges of violating a city ordinance designed to preserve oak trees. Conviction could bring six months in jail and a fine.
"This developer has a record of disregarding the law," Picus said. She said Raiten previously had been fined $25,000 for bulldozing an old ranch house on the West Hills property before the city could determine whether it had historic value. Picus said the actions being taken against Raiten are among the toughest taken against any developer in the area.
Raiten, who also heads the development firm building a controversial luxury residential project at the Paramount Ranch site in Agoura, said he was unaware that the sale of his West Hills houses would be blocked.
Neighbors who had tried to talk with him said Raiten had refused to meet or return telephone calls.
Told that Raiten did not know what everybody was mad about, Picus aide Jackie Brainard said that Raiten was obligated to protect the trees and prevent them from dying. The agreement with the city did not say he would plant some trees, she said. "It said those trees."
"Those trees were irreplaceable and he let them die. If you neglect a child and it becomes ill, it's still neglect," Brainard said. "Those trees may have been 200 to 300 years old."
Brainard said that to close escrow on any additional houses at the housing tract, Raiten must come to the city for permission. Before granting permission, however, the city could require Raiten to donate money to a tree conservation organization.