Council will review owners’ rights to cut down trees without permits

By BARBARA DIAMOND

The City Council will review on Tuesday the right of private property owners to cut down trees on their own land or in adjacent public-rights-of-way without city permission.

According to a staff report the council clearly has the right to regulate trees in the public right of way, but may be on shakier ground when it comes to regulating the removal of trees on private property.

“I do believe property owners, especially in Laguna Beach, should have the opportunity to design their own landscape plan and unfortunately, sometimes trees reach maturity or don’t fit in,” said resident Karl Koski, former city manager of Temple City. “Requiring a permit is an erosion of private property rights.”   

Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede raised the issue of regulation at the June 27 meeting following the owner’s removal of trees at Ruby’s Diner in South Laguna.

“We have had a lot of losses in last-minute and weekend cutting,” said landscape architect Ann Christoph, who supports a permit process. 

Property owners may not be aware of city policies on removing trees

“The trees at Ruby’s are gone, but if we had a permit process there would be a public review and evaluation. The property owner might even reconsider removal after hearing public comment.” 

Property owners are not always aware of city policies on removing trees, and those policies do not address all removals, according to staff.

The council must approve removal of Heritage Trees. Removal of trees in a landscape plan approved through the design review process must be approved by the Design Review Board or the Planning Commission. Removal without permission may be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

Removal of privately maintained trees in the public-right-of-way may be removed only if perceived to be at risk of failing, under the term of an interim policy adopted by the council in 2016. The policy applies only to trees in danger of failing. 

If the council directs staff to prepare a new ordinance, penalty for removal without permission could result in an administrative citation or prosecution for misdemeanor and replacement of the tree at the owner’s cost. 

Each removed tree would be a separate violation. Currently citations escalate from $100 for first violation, to $200 for the second and $500 for the third.

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