The crews showed up with chain saws 18 months ago, ripping into coast live oaks, black walnuts and other trees that lined the hillsides of Brentwood's Sullivan Canyon.
To the alarm of his neighbors, real estate developer Sam Shakib had secured permission from the city of Los Angeles to chop down 56 trees, part of a much larger plan for developing two mansions on the sprawling 12-acre site.
But his landscaping crew went too far. Three trees that were supposed to be preserved — two live oaks and a towering western sycamore — also came down.
Now, Brentwood neighborhood groups, bolstered by some big-name environmentalists, want the city to punish Shakib and his business partner, Sean Namvar, by revoking the permits for their planned 14,948-square-foot homes.
Under city law, public works officials can prohibit construction on a piece of property for up to 10 years if the owners are found to have violated the terms of their tree removal permit. That type of penalty, foes of the project say, would send a powerful message about the consequences of flouting urban forestry laws.
"If ever these laws need to be enforced to protect our trees … this is the case and now is the time," said Gideon Kracov, the lawyer for the Sullivan Canyon Property Owners Assn., a neighborhood group fighting Shakib's project.
Public works officials say they expect a decision to be issued by early next week. Among the factors that will be considered are the number of trees removed, their size and age and whether there was an intent to violate the law.
Tree preservation has also been a hot issue in Silver Lake, where a billboard company came under fire for cutting back nine street trees — all without permits — that blocked views of one of its signs. But the fight in Sullivan Canyon is even more contentious, with one lawsuit already filed and others being contemplated.
Foes of the project contend the developers have a history of disregarding the law. The lawyer for the developers, in turn, calls opponents "a bunch of wealthy, politically connected Brentwood NIMBYs" whose own homes could not have been built without also toppling trees.
Shakib's lawyer, Patrick Mitchell, said the three trees were cut down by accident. The real endgame of the neighbors, he said, is to kill the project outright.
"They think my client's multimillion-dollar, 12 acres of private property should be their private park at no cost to them," Mitchell said.
Shakib's hillside property does indeed resemble parkland. Located in a rustic section of Brentwood dotted with horse stables, the site is lined with chaparral and coastal sage scrub. It has a natural streambed that, according to neighbors, has long attracted frogs, deer, countless birds and even a bobcat.
"We're not talking about some sterile piece of land, but one of the few remaining pieces of natural habitat left in the city," Sara Nichols, who lives two doors from the site, said during testimony last month.
The developers, who say they have sunk $12 million into the project, are offering to make amends by planting 14 replacement trees. For the neighbors, that offer is a non-starter.
Nichols, a board member with the group seeking to revoke Shakib's permits, doesn't buy the idea that the trees were removed by accident. Ripping out the giant sycamore, she said, will allow the developers to avoid the cost of building a retaining wall for the project's driveway.
"It was very deliberate. It was done to facilitate access to the property," she said. "To willfully cut a tree like that, that gorgeous specimen … is a criminal act."
Mitchell says Nichols' assertion is untrue. "There's no upside for us" in taking down the three protected trees, he said. "It's all downside."
So far, the neighbors have succeeded in bringing in major players to support their effort. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, has called on the city to revoke Shakib's permits. So has Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Brentwood.
The fight over Shakib's project goes beyond the three trees.
In 2014, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board concluded that Shakib's company had violated the terms of a permit allowing construction work around a local streambed. Months later, Nichols and her group filed a lawsuit saying the environmental review for the project was inadequate. They also alleged that neighbors did not receive proper public notification about the development.
The city's rules did not require the neighbors receive notice of the application to take out the 56 trees — which, because they are California natives, have "protected" status at City Hall. Had notification been issued, Brentwood residents would have shown up en masse at the Feb. 1, 2013, meeting at City Hall where the tree removal permit was approved, project opponents say.
According to the lawsuit, notification did go to then-Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represented Brentwood at the time and had Bonin as his chief of staff. But no one in Rosendahl's office informed the community, Kracov said.
Mitchell, for his part, said his clients tried for months to get a meeting with Bonin but were repeatedly rebuffed. He argued that the property owners may have grounds for a civil rights lawsuit if things don't break their way.
The decision over whether to revoke Shakib's permits will fall to Ron Lorenzen, an assistant director of the city's Bureau of Street Services. Lorenzen said his decision will not take into account the complaints about public notice, the environmental review or the water quality control board.
If the neighbors prevail, Shakib will have an opportunity to appeal the decision to Mayor Eric Garcetti's appointees at the Board of Public Works. Meanwhile, the opponents are already pursuing other avenues for challenging Shakib's project.
On Wednesday, Garcetti's appointees on the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission will meet to determine whether Shakib's project should have complied with new rules governing hillside development.