Tree Boards Cut No Slack


A month after moving into her new Calabasas home, Carolyn Scharg stood before the city’s tree board, facing as much as $40,000 in mitigation fees. Her offense: cutting a few branches off an oak tree without a permit.

Scharg argued before the board that she was unaware of the city ordinance that requires a permit to cut or remove any indigenous oak in Calabasas. She said she never saw warning signs and cut the branches only to protect the roof of her new home.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 28, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 345 words Type of Material: Correction
Tree boards--A story in Monday’s California section about community tree boards did not make clear that the oak tree whose branches were cut by Carolyn and Scott Scharg of Calabasas is on their neighbor’s property, not their own. Also, the article referred to “fines” paid by individuals who cut or remove indigenous oak without permission. The story should have made clear that those are mitigation fees that go toward the cost of saving trees that have been damaged by unauthorized cutting and vary depending on the cost. In the case reported on, that cost could be between $10,000 and $40,000.

She was fined $10,000 for the tree trimming, which she said has also cost her many hours of lost sleep. The fine could balloon to $40,000 if the tree does not survive.

“It’s nothing personal,” said Kay Greeley, the city’s arborist and consultant for the tree board. “It’s all about the oaks.”

The city’s five-member tree board meets once a month to hear cases of people who mistakenly cut the city- and state-protected scrub oaks and other oak trees.


Some people, such as construction crews and developers, pay a permit fee and are ordered to plant new oaks. Others, like Scharg, find themselves facing thousands of dollars in fines for their actions.

Calabasas is one of a growing number of Southern California cities with citizen tree boards. Some boards, such as those in Calabasas, Riverside and Claremont, have become a major part of city government, advising city planners on beautification projects, amendments to city ordinances and penalties for those who harm trees.

Landscape attorney Randall Stamen calls it the “the greening of California.”

“Trees are an asset to a city,” said Stamen, a certified arborist who recently left the tree board in Riverside. “It’s a quality-of-life issue.

“Tree committees permit citizens to directly shape a city’s policy regarding the trees which grow in a city’s parks and along its streets,” he said. “They also help prevent mayors and city council people from being overwhelmed by tree issues.”

Stamen, who as a tree board member assisted urban planners in making decisions on planting and protecting Riverside’s 60,000 trees, said he is delighted that more cities are taking an interest.

“It’s great to see more citizens taking an active part in keeping their cities beautiful,” he said. “It doesn’t just show that they care about their city, but it shows that they care about the environment.”

Eric Oldar, the state urban forestry coordinator for the California Department of Forestry in Riverside, said that while he has seen an increase in community volunteer programs, he also has noticed decreases in city-run tree departments.

Communities lacking tree boards often don’t encourage community input because they are limited by budgets or staffing from responding to complaints or suggestions, he said.

At least 128 California cities with some form of citizen advisory board are classified as a “Tree City USA,” according to a national organization that tracks and commends arbor-friendly cities.

To be so designated, a city must also have a tree-care ordinance, a community forestry program with a minimum annual budget of $2 per capita and observe Arbor Day, according to Tina Schweitzer, coordinator of Tree City USA, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Arbor Day Foundation.

The number of municipalities nationwide with the “Tree City USA” designation has increased from 42 in 1976 to 2,776 last year, she said, adding that the number is growing by about 150 a year.

“It’s not just the small, rural cities,” Schweitzer said. “It’s cities with larger populations.”

Some cities, like San Diego, Huntington Beach and Diamond Bar, just created a community advisory board within the last year or two, she said, while others, like Burbank, Sacramento and Claremont, have had tree advisory boards for more than 25 years.

“We had a tree board before we had a city council,” said Mark Hodnick, Claremont’s urban forest manager. “In 1887, we had a group of citizens who would care for the trees in the area.”

While Claremont’s seven-member community services commission is involved in many civic activities, its main priority is ensuring that the city’s 23,000 street trees are not harmed.

“The city plants the trees,” Hodnick said about the 112 different varieties of street trees. “The homeowner is just supposed to water them. We have our trees on a database, so if any work is done, we’ll know.

Hodnick said the fines “can be pretty pricey to trim one of the city’s trees and [they] get higher if the trimming continues.

“We call it our three-limbs-and-you’re-out law.”

In a case yet to be decided, a Claremont business owner faces a $17,000 fine for cutting down city-owned tulip and carob trees, he said.

A citizen advisory board works closely with Burbank’s parks and recreation and forestry departments to determine what parts of the city may need additional trees. In the spring, Civic Pride, another volunteer organization, helps with tree planting.

Neither Los Angeles city nor county has a tree board, but the city formed a Community Forest Advisory Committee in 1993. The group makes policy recommendations to the Board of Public Works concerning the urban forest, specifically about tree selection, planting and care.

The committee helps city agencies involved in tree maintenance to analyze forestry programs and foster community support and preservation of the more than 680,000 trees in Los Angeles, according to city officials. In Calabasas, Scharg has pleaded before the city’s tree board, City Council, city attorney and city manager to reduce her fine. “I don’t think I should be defending myself like a criminal,” she said at a council meeting last month.

Scharg said she and her husband, Scott, who moved to Calabasas from Michigan, never heard of the tree ordinance. They never saw any warning signs about the law and were never informed by their real estate agent, she said.

Tree board members said the law is mentioned at city events and in city newsletters and they have started an advertising campaign to inform the public and new homeowners.

“People who live here and are active in the community know about the ordinance,” said Councilman Michael Harrison, a founding member of the tree board. “Others find out inadvertently by violating the ordinance. Ignorance is no excuse.”

The city law covers three types of oaks--coast live oaks, valley oaks and scrub oaks--because of their historic, aesthetic and ecological values, Harrison said. The Calabasas tree board plans to expand the law to include other indigenous trees.

Other jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, have similar laws regarding oak trees and other species.

The county’s oak tree ordinance, in effect since September 1998 in all unincorporated areas, states: “A person shall not cut, destroy, remove, relocate, inflict damage or encroach into the protected zone of any tree of the oak tree genus without first obtaining a permit.”

Calabasas tree board member Helene Regen, who helped write her city’s ordinance protecting oak trees, said the tough attitude is necessary.

“Some people do not care about ecology and the environment,” she said.

“We need to educate the public that these trees are our community. We have to protect them.”