Chinese elm wins bout against home owner

It’s been three and a half months since Roberta Dominguez filed an appeal to remove a Chinese elm tree that is protected by a city ordinance from her backyard, where it is damaging the patio and pool deck. After an initial denial, an appeal of that decision and $500 spent navigating the ins and outs of La Cañada Flintridge’s tree ordinance, Dominguez is back at square one after the Planning Commission on Tuesday unanimously denied her appeal for removal.

Commissioner Herand Sarkissian said that, while the commission was sympathetic to Dominguez’s situation, the findings reported to the city by arborist Bill McKinley led him to vote against the appeal.

“I’m having a problem really relating the problems that this tree is creating with any damage to the house,” said Sarkissian. “It is possible to live with the tree.”

The tree in Dominguez’s backyard was rated by McKinley as a C grade tree, worth $900. McKinley’s report suggested that measures like digging a four-foot ditch around it and installing plastic root barriers, and replacing the damaged brick patio with decomposed granite or a raised deck, would minimize root damage while preserving the tree. Sarkissian said that, based on his experience as an architect, he estimated the cost of such measures could be as high as 10,000.

Dominguez’s boyfriend, Rodney Gregson, said after Tuesday’s hearing that he and Dominguez are disappointed with the commission’s ruling, especially considering the high cost of preserving the tree.

“It makes no sense to expect us to spend $10,000 to protect a $900 tree,” Gregson said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Dominguez said during the hearing that she was upset that the city forced her to hire McKinley, when she had found, through a coworker, a city-approved arborist willing to do the report at lower cost.

“I had an arborist that was on the approved list, that I did not know personally, that was willing to give it to me for $100, and I had to pay $350. I think that’s very unfair,” said Dominguez.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Chinese elm’s protected status is currently being evaluated by the Planning Commission. Were the City Council to approve that change, Dominguez could remove her tree without city approval.

“This is a tough one, because … there’s a pretty good chance that our recommendation to the City Council at least will be that the Chinese elm be removed from that list,” said Curtis.

Dominguez said that she would evaluate the cost of pursuing an appeal of the commission’s decision with the City Council before deciding whether or not to try and wait for a change in the tree ordinance.

Still, Curtis summed up the sentiments of commissioners Sarkissian, Arum Jain and Michael Cahill when he said that until the ordinance is officially changed, the commission had to enforce it.

“We’re here to carry out the policy that the City Council and the citizens have set out for us to carry out, said Curtis. “Right now, the ordinance is what it is.”

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