Pierre Morillo will pay a $25,000 price for removing three protected Chinese elm trees from his La Cañada Flintridge property without permission, the Planning Commission decided Tuesday night.
The commission voted 4-0 to require Morillo to place at least three new protected trees on his St. Katherine Drive property, with the remaining money used to plant trees throughout the city. Commissioner Arun Jain was absent from the meeting.
The commission reduced the proposed restitution from $45,000, which a city arborist said is the value of the removed trees.
“One thing everyone knows in this city is trees are protected,” said Commissioner Michael Cahill. “If we don’t treat it seriously, it’ll be viewed as a cost of construction to take down trees and replace them with a number of smaller ones.”
Mark Feldman, an attorney representing Morillo, said the trees had been severely damaged before his client purchased the home in September of 2010.
“[The previous owners] removed the crown, they ripped the bark, all you had was a few trunks with some branches sticking out, covered in ivy, and they were harboring rats,” he said. The Morillo family, he said, “took down what they thought were decaying trees.”
Feldman also said Morillo was misled by the tree removal service that identified the trees as “California elms.”
Feldman was unable to provide the name of the tree removal service, however, or show evidence that the trees were damaged prior to removal.
Morillo had offered to replace the trees with four trees, either protected sycamores or oaks, of at least 36-inch circumference.
Although the commission recently recommended that the City Council remove the Chinese elm from the city’s list of protected trees when the council takes up the ordinance May 7, commissioners said that didn’t excuse this violation.
“At the time this was done, the Chinese elm was a protected tree,” Commissioner Rick Gunter said. “It’s not credible to me that you could live in this town and not know that trees of this significance are protected.”
Feldman disagreed. Commissioners, he said, “have known for some time the Chinese elm should not be a protected tree. I think it should have an effect on the case.”
In addition to the Chinese elm, the city’s protected tree list currently includes oak, sycamore, deodar and California pepper trees.