Neighbors blow their tops over botched tree prunings

Times Staff Writer

“Styx made sticks out of our pines!” was the cry that echoed beneath the Hollywood sign once the noisy chain saws and wood chippers were turned off.

A row of stately Aleppo pines planted four decades ago in a historic Mulholland Highway center divider were missing their tops and most of their branches. Nearby residents quickly determined that the pruning had been ordered by Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw and his wife, Jeanne, to improve the view from their hillside home above the trees.

Anger over the botched trim job increased months later when more than half of the 14 hacked-up trees appeared to be dying. A flurry of finger-pointing and name-calling erupted on a local Internet blog as neighbors debated who was to blame, whether the cutting was legal and what should happen next.

Now the city has stepped in to referee the dispute. And in a showdown meeting on the street beneath the withering trees, it was agreed that the Shaws will replace the dying pines with native California sycamores.


Or will they?

City officials say yes, but the Shaws say that maybe something better will be planted when the pine stumps are dug up -- something that doesn’t grow too tall.

“We’re looking for a good replacement,” Jeanne Shaw said. “The one thing we care about is when it is finished it looks good. People from the whole world come up here to look at the Hollywood sign.”

Shaw said she and her husband were shocked when they saw the results of the pruning. She said the trees had been topped off several times in the past when they began to obscure the couple’s panoramic view of the Los Angeles Basin. The pair figured they were allowed to prune because of a 1973 city tree-trimming permit that they said came with the property they bought a dozen years ago.


But Jeanne Shaw’s former tree trimmer retired and she hired a new one for the latest pruning. “It was a big disaster. Our view of it was the worst: We looked right down at it,” she said.

Later, a neighbor hired another trimmer for a median-strip pine that the Shaws’ work crew had overlooked. “That tree was stripped. It was horrifying -- looked like a totem pole. People thought we did it, but we didn’t,” she said.

Cara Rule, president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assn., said the woman who ordered the cutting of the last tree will be responsible for replacing it. Actually, that woman and the Shaws will be required by the city to replace the pines on a two-for-one basis. The extra trees will be planted on city parkland, Rule said.

Among those meeting on the street was nearby resident Jean Clyde Mason. She was one of the people who helped plant the pines about 40 years ago to beautify the median, Rule said.


The median divider, built by Italian artisans when the old Hollywoodland subdivision was planned in the 1920s, separates Mulholland’s elevated westbound traffic from the lower eastbound lane. The stonework has been designated a Los Angeles cultural landmark.

Rule said the sycamore was the slight winner when the neighborhood was polled to learn residents’ preference for replacement trees. “We’re going back and forth on whether it should be the native sycamore or a bottle tree,” which is Australian but is approved as a street tree by the city, she said.

Whatever is planted should be low-maintenance and have roots that will not damage the stone wall and street pavement, Rule said. Nearby residents will be asked to water the new trees for at least two years.

Neighbor Lee Dembart, who lives a few houses away from the chain-sawed pines, said he favors an evergreen tree. Sycamores “look fine in the summer, but they are barren in the winter, which doesn’t look good,” he said.


Dembart also questioned the city’s agreement to the planting of 36-inch box trees. “The Shaws should be required to replace the trees they destroyed with trees of roughly the same size as the ones that were there.”

City officials said sycamores grow large but are manageable.

The city currently prunes its street trees every nine years. Any other trimming is up to residents.

But any future pruning of trees in the Mulholland median divider will require a current permit that is valid for just 30 days, said the city’s Assistant Chief Forester Ronald Lorenzen, who took part in the meeting with homeowners. And a complaint over an obscured view won’t cut it with L.A.'s Urban Forestry Division.


“The city does not have a view ordinance,” Lorenzen said. “You cannot prune in order to preserve your view.”