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Laguna Niguel Trees Felled, Tempers Rise : Dispute: Move by homeowners association divides residents in affluent neighborhood.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A four-year dispute over tall trees and blocked ocean views has escalated into a mini-war in an affluent neighborhood here after 200 eucalyptus trees were abruptly cut down this week by the local homeowners association.

Sheriff’s deputies responded Tuesday and Wednesday to reports of unrest in the 151-home Potomac Landing community, where tree crews say they were threatened with a shotgun, shoves were exchanged, and members of the Potomac Landing Homeowners Assn. were yelling at each other on the sidewalks.

“I’m afraid for myself and my children,” said Debra Marcus of Broadhorn Drive, who supports the tree removal. “There have been threats made by people around here. . . . There is an atmosphere of fear in this neighborhood.”

The controversy has long festered and deeply divided the tiered, hillside community near Niguel Road and Camino del Avion. Hilltop homeowners--who say they paid up to $100,000 extra for distant ocean views, which slowly disappeared as the trees grew to heights of 30 feet--wanted the trees eliminated. But residents living along the streets below reveled in the parklike atmosphere provided by the eucalyptus rising from the slopes behind their homes.

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The crisis boiled over when crews, under orders from the homeowners association, began felling the trees on Tuesday. The work was finished Wednesday.

Julie Pash, a Lanteen Circle resident, said her 10-year-old son came home from school Tuesday, crying. “I asked him what was wrong, and he said: ‘My trees, my trees are gone.’ They cut down his favorite climbing tree and did it deliberately in a way so nobody had a chance to stop them.”

The association’s decision to act stemmed from a vote in February, when a new board was elected and the new majority decided to eliminate the trees quickly and quietly.

“Threats of lawsuits had been made in the past,” association President John Kay explained Wednesday. “We thought this would be in the best interests of everybody, not just the select few who are upset.”

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Kay said the trees were cut down because they cost $9,000 annually to trim; many were rotting and considered a fire hazard, and “thirdly, blocked the views of a lot of people who paid a lot of money for those views.” Kay’s own house is among those on the hill.

Accused by pro-tree residents of making the decision during a clandestine session, Kay said the board “had a closed-door meeting, not a secret meeting.” However, he acknowledged that notices of the session were not sent to association members.

A significant number of the eucalyptus trees will be replaced by acacia saplings, he said.

“The new trees will grow; time will heal the wounds here,” Kay said.

Minutes later, as Kay was being interviewed by a reporter, he was verbally accosted on the sidewalk by a group of angry residents who demanded an explanation for the mass tree removal.

“You just wanted to get rid of our trees behind our backs,” one woman angrily told Kay. “Don’t lie to us.”

When Debra Marcus and her husband, Alan, came up behind Kay to speak in favor of the restored views and about increased hostility in the neighborhood, pro-tree residents went further on the offensive.

“You have been threatened? Good--you should be threatened,” a woman resident told Debra Marcus. “You lose what I’ve lost, then you can talk.”

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Several homeowners were in tears on Wednesday over the fallen trees.

“You couldn’t see my decks before,” said Judy Frugard, who now has 14 stumps on her property. “It was like living in a park setting. I hope this is illegal what they have done, because if not, it’s definitely immoral.”

Angry tree advocates say they will attend today’s association meeting in force, and they plan to investigate the possibility of recalling the board.

“I think this is not about trees, it’s about views,” said Frugard’s husband, Gary, at a gathering of concerned residents Wednesday night. “We need to recall this board quickly and cut off their ability to spend our money.”

The trees were scattered along several streets, slopes and on homeowners’ property.

As is standard with homeowners groups, the association can perform maintenance work on members’ private property, said association officials. But some residents said the tree cuttings went far beyond normal maintenance.

Frugard said the first workers showed up midmorning Tuesday “and five seconds after I noticed them, the first tree was gone. I went out there to stop them and they ignored me. We had absolutely no notice about this.”

Throughout the neighborhood, other homeowners saw their trees being felled and tried to halt the cutting.

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Jim Robinson, 68, said when he ran outside to protest, one of the workers approached him with “a vicious look and his chain saw running. I got scared so I ran inside and grabbed my shotgun and went back out. But they knew it wasn’t loaded because I pumped it a couple of times.”

A foreman for B&J; Tree Service in Tustin had a different account of events.

“First, (Robinson) kind of wrapped himself around one of the trees,” said the foreman, who spoke only on the condition that he not be identified. “He went in his house and came back with the shotgun and started waving that around. He pointed that thing at me and I said: ‘Hey, man, I’m just doing my job.’ ”

Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Davis confirmed that deputies had responded to a disturbance at the scene. No arrests have been made.

Former association board member Sheila Longerbone said she would have advocated “street by street removal, not all at one time. I didn’t realize it would be so drastic a change here with all the trees gone.”

Although morale “has gone to hell in a handbasket out here,” she concluded, “two years from now, the neighborhood will be better off.”


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