When Roberta Dominguez’s months-long effort to gain city approval to remove a Chinese elm tree from her back yard was denied last week, it left another resident wondering why Dominguez had to go through the ordeal.
The man, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals from his neighbors or the city, said residents in his neighborhood off Chevy Chase Drive recently cut down four Chinese elm trees themselves, apparently without any consequences. The man said he had not met the neighbors, who were doing landscaping work on the home before moving into it.
Arborist Bill McKinley, who has consulted with the city about changing the tree ordinance to remove the Chinese elm from the protected list, said that this could be a result of ignorance of the ordinance.
“Different publications do their best to try and educate the public on various ordinances and regulations,” said McKinley. “Sometimes it’s just a case of someone who is new to the area and is not familiar with either trees in general and/or the city regulations where they just moved into.”
La Cañada-based arborist Mike Barker, whose company does tree removals, said that protected trees are removed intentionally against regulations, but that it’s not common.
“Occasionally, trees do get cut down without permits, and more often, most people can’t get away with it,” said Barker. “In fact, I don’t know anybody that’s gotten away with cutting a tree down in the city, so it doesn’t happen very often.”
It does happen, however, according to Robert Stanley of the city Planning Department, which regulates removal of protected trees.
“Yeah we had a couple of times where a developer had come in and cut down a tree and we found about it,” said Stanley.
If someone wanted to remove a protected tree, Barker said, they might seek a non-local arborist who would be unaware of local regulations.
“If you’re from San Gabriel, you remove trees down there, you might come to La Cañada and think Chinese elm trees aren’t protected because it’s very unusual they are protected,” said Barker.
Of course, some people might be willing to remove the tree despite the risk of a citation, said Barker.
“They get their gardener to do it because he doesn’t know any better, and maybe they’re willing to take the risk of getting caught just so they can get the tree down,” said Barker.
Stanley said that because the city doesn’t have any way of inspecting every backyard, his department relies on residents to report possible illegal tree removal.
“Mostly we find out about people cutting down trees because of the neighbors, and they’ll complain, and they’ll say, ‘These people don’t have a permit,’ So we’ll go out and inspect,” said Stanley.
When someone is caught cutting down a protected tree — which in La Cañada means oak, sycamore, deodar, California pepper and the Chinese elm — they face a range of punishments from the city, said Stanley.
“The punishment is we would go back, determine the value of the tree and they would have to replace that tree, that value, whatever was determined, on their property or they could potentially pay it into the city tree fund,” said Stanley. “It all depends on what the Planning Commission decides after that — it could be more.”
Ultimately, Stanley said, the responsibity lies with those removing trees to make sure they are in compliance.
“The [landscaping] company should be checking,” said Stanley. “The companies that are on our list, they have the ordinance, they’re supposed to understand the ordinance and they’re supposed to comply with the ordinance.”