Woman Told To Cut Down Her Trees — By Two Courts

It’s not every day a court orders a property owner to cut down trees on their own property.  One Marin county woman has the unfortunate record of having been ordered to cut down her trees by two different courts in two years.  

The California Court of Appeal this week affirmed a ruling by the Marin Superior Court that Dr. Anne Wolff of Larkspur, California must chop down more than two dozen blue gum eucalyptus trees on her property.

At a trial last year, the Marin Superior Court considered whether the trees were enough of a danger that they needed to be removed. The suit was brought by adjacent neighbors of Dr. Wolff who argued that the trees presented an imminent danger.

Neighbors were so fearful of the strand of trees on Wolff’s property that they banned their children from playing outside during windy days out of fear of a branch falling on them. The neighbors were kept awake at night by debris falling on their roof.

The non-native blue gum eucalyptus tree has been called “America’s largest weed” and “gasoline trees” and were partly responsible for fueling the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

Former Marin Superior Court Judge Michael Dufficy ultimately ruled that the trees — some of which stand over 100 feet tall — were a “clear and continuing hazard.”

The Court of Appeal agreed, noting that blue gum eucalyptus was the “second most failure-prone species in Northern California,” comprised of extremely heavy wood and tending to develop over-extended limbs with shallow roots.

The Court of Appeal found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in adopting the recommendations of well-respected local arborist Ray Moritz who, the court found, “came with impeccable credentials and knowledge of the species and the hazards associated with it.”

Dr. Wolff has vowed to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Removing the trees will not be cheap.  An estimate to remove the trees came in around $50,000, which the court ruled would be split between the parties.  By comparison, legal fees for Dr. Wolff have exceeded $150,000.  Dr. Wolff could spend another $30,000-40,000 on a Supreme Court appeal.

The unfortunate lesson here is that it would have been far less expensive for everyone involved to come to an agreement a long time ago. Ten years ago the Plaintiffs offered Wolff $50,000 to remove the eucalyptus trees and replant other species on her property. She turned down the offer. Had she accepted, her new trees could have grown to a level today to provide her with adequate shade and privacy without threatening her neighbors’ safety.

When at all possible, it is far preferable for feuding parties to try to come together and hash out an agreement. Rolling the dice with trial — or throwing a “hail Mary” and trying to win on appeal — is often too much of a risk. Kind of like sleeping under a grove of eucalyptus.

Update June 11, 2010 11:57 a.m.: The California Supreme Court has refused to hear an appeal of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, meaning it may be the end of the road for this legal odyssey.

John Corcoran is an Associate with Plastiras & Terrizzi law firm in San Rafael, California (Marin County).  He advises clients on real estate matters, small business issues, estate planning, and general civil litigation.  He may be reached at jcorcoran@ptlegal.com or (415) 472-8100 x211.

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