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Tree’s Fate May Rest With Its Historic Roots : Environment: Neighbors’ bid to have 60-year-old eucalyptus named a ‘Heritage Tree’ stymies developer’s plans to build on Laguna parcel.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like a 1960s sit-in protester, the maroon Volkswagen is stationed in front of the towering eucalyptus tree, a barricade just big enough to keep chain saws away from the 70-foot giant.

The abandoned car’s purpose is stated plainly on a heart-shaped sign cut from green construction paper and taped to the windshield: “Save the Tree.”

But a shallow, foot-long chain saw gash across the tree’s trunk shows that builder Jeffrey Eastman has other ideas. The cut was made by the first of three tree-cutting crews that have visited the site at Eastman’s order only to be turned away by irate neighbors. They have nominated the 60-year-old-eucalyptus as a “Heritage Tree,” a registry of notable local trees, and at least until the City Council reviews the nomination Sept. 3, it is illegal to cut the tree down.

“I can’t believe the fight we’ve had to put up just to protect a tree, but we’re not going to let him cut it down,” said Linda Nelson, 44, one of five Pala Way homeowners involved in the effort. “The city has told him he can’t cut it down, but he doesn’t care. He said he doesn’t care about a fine or what the police say, he just wants the tree down.”

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Eastman, who is in the process of buying the land, said he has the owner’s permission to build a home on the 75-by-40-foot lot, a plan requiring that the tree be removed from its spot on the property’s northern boundary. He said the Heritage Tree nomination was filed by Nelson and the other neighbors only to block new development in the area.

“This has nothing to do with the tree, it’s just a ploy,” Eastman said. “Hey, the tree is a danger, it’s falling over, it’s on an incline, and it’s growing against a (neighbor’s) wall so it can’t go anywhere. It’s just a eucalyptus. It’s not an oak, it’s not a redwood, it’s just a eucalyptus. It’s not rare, I can grow a whole grove of them.”

However, Nelson and three other homeowners say Eastman has acted in defiance of the city’s Heritage Tree code. Just as the first tree-cutting crew put the saw to the tree Aug. 19, shocked neighbors arrived and summoned Tamara Campbell, senior city planner, and a police officer, Nelson and police said. As the puzzled tree trimmers looked on, Eastman argued with the group, insisting he would have the tree destroyed. Soon, the officer on the scene called his supervisor, Sgt. Lance Ishmael, to deal with Eastman.

“He was pretty emphatic,” Ishmael said. “He didn’t want to deal with the system. He said to go ahead and arrest him because he was going to cut the tree down anyway, and when I told him I’d be happy to do just that, he decided discretion was the batter part of valor and backed down.”

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Neighbors told police two separate hired crews came to the site again the next day, but were discouraged by the tree’s protected status. Anyone who breaks municipal code by felling the tree would be committing a misdemeanor and would face a fine to be decided by a judge. Campbell said about 50 trees have been named Heritage Trees under the 10-year-old program, which gauges candidates by size, history or unusual appearence.

While arborists hired by each side disagree about the Pala Way tree’s health and hazards, Nelson and the other neighbors insist the eucalyptus is historic because it dates back to the Cannon Estate, a once-sprawling property built by the owners of Cannon Electric in the early 1930s. They have also asked that four other trees across from Eastman’s planned home site be declared Heritage Trees.

The neighbor coalition says those four Aleppo pines will be damaged or destroyed if Eastman’s home is built because city ordinances require the house construction to include a widening of Pala Way, an 8-foot wide road veering off of Alta Vista Way. The road now provides access to the homes of Don Romero and Edward Brancard before reaching a dead end.

“Three times people have attempted to build on this lot, and three times they’ve been repelled by the difficulty of it,” Romero said. “It’s just too small for this kind of project, and he’ll have to widen this road and screw up all the trees around here if he tries and make it work.”

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