Merv Griffin's first big hit was the 1949 novelty number, "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts." Now he's got a lovely bunch of pine trees on his estate in Beverly Hills, and it will be up to the City Council to decide if he can chop them down.
Griffin, who bought the three-acre spread for $5 million in 1986, has put it up for sale (asking price: $15.5 million). An elaborate brochure boasts that it includes the only pine forest in town.
But the erstwhile singer and talk show host, now better known as a TV game show producer, hotelier and casino gambling mogul, also wants to subdivide the property on Doheny Road into two separate lots, a move that could mean the destruction of at least 100 of the towering evergreens to make way for a new house.
The city's Planning Commission recently granted its approval, on the condition that it would retain the right to approve any future development plans.
But Griffin's attorney, Murray D. Fischer, denounced the requirement as arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory, charging that it shows "a total disregard for property rights."
He is appealing to the City Council, which is scheduled to hear the case Oct. 8.
Arguing that there would be more than 300 pines on the newly subdivided lot, Fischer said removing 111 would actually make the rest look better because they would get more sunlight.
"These are all interior trees, and the perimeter trees, which the commission is so worried about, would still be there," he said.
Fischer said he will propose instead a plan giving Griffin--or a future buyer--the right to remove up to 111 trees to make room for a building "pad" of 15,000 square feet, big enough to build an 8,000-square-foot house.
Such a house has yet to be designed, so there is no way to know which trees would be removed.
Because of that uncertainty, said Ron Rosen, chairman of the Planning Commission, the city needs to reserve the right to approve any specific development proposal that may come up in the future.
"It was their proposal to say that 'We're going to cut down X number of trees,' and we said, 'Before that, we need to know where they're going to put the pad, and which trees you're going to cut when it is ready to go,' " Rosen said.
"We have basically said that before you destroy this, we want to know what you're going to do, so we can try to make sure that the impact of this forest, as seen from the surrounding streets, is preserved," Rosen said.
The forest, made up largely of Canary pines, some of them 60 feet tall, was planted at least 50 years ago. Although largely obscured by hedges and a fence, the tops are a vital part of the landscape, city planners said in their report to the Planning Commission.
Ellen Stern Harris, executive director of the Beverly Hills-based Fund for the Environment and a member of the city's Parks and Recreation Commission, said the removal of the trees would be "a great tragedy, and a needless one." She called on Griffin to rethink his plans.
City Councilman Max Salter agreed. Salter, who recently suggested that the Parks and Recreation Commission propose an ordinance protecting distinguished, privately owned trees, said, "It's for the ultimate good of the community. It has to do with the environment and how we live."
But Lynn Wasserman, who lives just up Doheny Road from the Griffin estate, said, "He should be allowed to chop down any trees he wants.
"I have pine trees too, and if I want to cut them down, I ought to be able to. I can't imagine the environmental impact of cutting down some pine trees. We don't even have sidewalks up here, so no one can walk by and see it, and from your car you can only see the hedge."