In a decision earlier this week, the Los Angeles Superior Court decided that while it's right to preserve views, it's not necessarily right to make them when they weren't there in the first place.
On Dec. 5, the court overturned an ordinance passed by the city of Rolling Hills to force a homeowner to remove five, 40-year-old trees to restore a neighbor's view.
On July 8, 2011, Oksana Bihun, resident of 49 Saddleback Road, filed a complaint with the city about five 40-year-old trees planted downslope from Bihun at Howard Hall’s residence at 48 Saddleback Road.
Bihun claimed the trees blocked his view.
The Rolling Hills Tree Committee took notice and decided on Jan. 17 that Hall's five trees must be cut to the ground. Hall said that the Tree Committee didn't suggest pruning or trimming, and the stump removal would be at Hall's expense.
In response to Hall's appeal, the Council evaluated the two properties in February, and the mayor noted that the Bihun property had a view obstruction. He asked if any of the council members disagreed. No one did.
The city council denied the request for a continuance to reach a resolution on March 12 and enacted Resolution No. 1118, which required the removal of the five trees to ground level.
Around March 21, Bihun gave a $2,750 check to Hall, which triggered 30-day period to cut the trees down. The resolution also stated that any replaced trees could not be more than 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide.
“Why would a city want to get involved in neighborhood disputes?” asked Attorney Kevin Yopp, who represented Hall. “It doesn’t make sense to get involved if you saw two pit bulls fight.”
LA Superior Court found that the city’s resolution in Hall v. City of Rolling Hills lacked substantial evidence. The city council exceeded its authority under the ordinance and violated state law. Under the Fifth Amendment, the council’s decision constituted unconstitutional taking without compensation.
'The View Creation Ordinance'
Views may be indicative of property value, but this case exemplifies a bigger question for Rolling Hills residents: The General Plan preserves a resident’s right to have a scenic view, so can a resident create that view for him or herself?
These issues are usually settled between neighbors. But in short, a resident can’t level trees to forcibly create his or her homeowner's vista.
As Yopp put it, “The city is using the View Preservation Ordinance as a View Creation Ordinance.” The trees were there when Bihun originally bought the property, so there was no view to begin with.
By definition of the View Preservation Ordinance, which was enacted in 1993, a “view” that is protected for residents is “a scene of the Pacific Ocean, offshore islands, city lights of Los Angeles basin, the Palos Verdes Hills or Los Angeles Harbor from a principal residence and any immediately adjoining patio or deck area at the same elevation."
But there are limits to every resident’s right to have a scenic view. A request to change the landscape cannot adversely affect the environment or detract from the privacy or enjoyment of the property where the vegetation is located.
Citizens have complained about the View Preservation Ordinance, and the city now holds public forums on whether to revise the Ordinance.
Come March 2013, there will be an initiative on the Rolling Hills ballot that would revise the View Preservation Ordinance to be more protective of the trees. The initiative would also specify that the view a property owner owns is the view that the property originally had at purchase.
But this isn’t the end of tree disputes. Gilchrist & Rutter Law Firm will be prosecuting similar cases against Rolling Hills in the near future.