A Longtime Squabble Now Focuses on Ficus

Times Staff Writer

Love thy neighbor? Ah, not always.

A Costa Mesa-based television ministry -- the largest in the world -- has filed a $300,000 suit against three neighboring homeowners, claiming they illegally pruned and damaged a row of ficus trees just inside the church compound.

The suit, filed Oct. 23 in Orange County Superior Court, is the latest in a series of spats between Trinity Broadcasting Network and neighbors.

The organization and various residents have tangled over the bright white lights that festoon the exterior of the ministry's headquarters, the buses that bring visitors to the compound and the ministry's plan to film outdoor services for its cable television show "Praise the Lord."

But the fight over the ficus trees is the first to reach the courthouse.

It started in September when the three residents of an adjacent gated community sued, claiming that thick roots and branches were invading their property. The residents said the roots had caused a 6-foot wall dividing their homes from the church to lean perilously toward the ministry's property.

Although there have been efforts to resolve the dispute, the two sides give conflicting accounts of meetings, letters, and phone conversations between residents and church leaders.

"We have bent over backward to these people in an effort to be good neighbors, and all they have been is obstructive, uncooperative, and, we believe, committing illegal acts," said John Casoria, the ministry's attorney.

The three neighbors disagree.

"We just want to protect our property," said Vance Ito, one of the homeowners named in the suits. "In my view, they've put us at risk for something that they need to take responsibility for."

Ito said he and the other two homeowners named in the suits, Diane Dorrien and Stacy Swanson-Schofro, had merely cut branches that hung over their backyards and had caused no lasting damage to the trees.

City planning officials say that, no matter who cut the ficuses, the row of trees did not cause the sagging of the wall.

"Ficus trees are hearty trees," Ito said. "In order for them to plant the trees, they trenched out a big trench along the back wall. Through that process our wall was no longer supported on their side, and now our wall is leaning toward their property."

But if the residents' theory were correct, "the wall would be leaning to their side, not Trinity's side," said Mel Lee, a city planner.

The disputes led the city Planning Commission in March to give the ministry an "operations management plan" -- essentially a list of instructions for being good and being neighborly. Lee said the plan was meant to improve relations between the network and its neighbors by setting curfews for the ministry's maintenance work, tour buses and illumination of the million-bulb lighting system.

Since 1996, when the ministry moved into the neighborhood across the San Diego Freeway from South Coast Plaza, the network has battled with numerous residents. In addition to the tour buses on Bear Street and the outdoor and nighttime filming, points of contention have included a proposed 22-foot-high wall and noise from services.

In April, the Costa Mesa City Council denied a ministry request that it be allowed to shoot large televised services outdoors on the network's lot.

The ministry's attorney said the network had exhausted options for resolving the ficus dispute and sued as a last resort.

"We have extended the hand to be neighborly, and these people slap it every time," Casoria said. "These people are making mountains out of molehills. We believe it's their grand conspiracy to make TBN's life miserable. We get along with the rest of them. Just these three: They've been the thorn in our flesh .... We've learned to live with them."

Some residents of the area say they have learned to live with the network.

"They should've just talked to the church," said Wendy Gonzalez, 20, of Canadian Drive about the complaining residents. "You can see the trees from here .... With that church we have no problems."

City officials said the ministry has, in general, responded quickly to complaints. But on the matter of whether relations have improved overall, Lee hesitated.

"Since they're suing each other," he said, "I would probably say not."

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