Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eucalypts versus the Neighbors once again

Once again, a group of dreaded Eucalyptus trees, the shaggy aromatic, limb dropping bane of the urban landscape, is at war with its human neighbors. In this case, in Larkspur California. Eucalyptus trees have both their detractors and ardent defenders. They do serve useful purposes, even thought they are no natives to the US. They provide way stations to migrating Monarch butterflies, for instance, and in some places entire groves have been protected for that purpose.

My first legal case was an attempt to save Eucalypts on Angel Island from clearcutting by the California Park Service, who planned to restore a native grassland. My client, the poetially named POET (Protect Our Eucalyptus Trees) was passionate about the Blue Gums, and hired experts, among them my husband, consulting arborist Ray Moritz, to prove their point.

Alas, those trees were eventually removed, but not until the needed environmental studies were performed and I earned my first Defendant paid attorney's fees. The Park Service also was forced to use a kinder gentler method of removal that protected the fragile landscape around the trees themselves.

However, in many cases, these Australian interlopers have proved to be less than desirable, dropping bark and little Eucie nuts all over the place, and whose cracking limbs in rain and wind storms have landed on many a car and house, sometimes even on people, unfortunate enough to be underneath them at the time. These "widow makers" have even uprooted themselves to land with an earthquake like thud, often to disastrous effect.

Which brings me to the case of the Larkspur trees, beloved by their owner, feared by the neighbor. Again, enter my husband, the consulting arborist, who has weighed in on the side of the fearful neighbors. One of these giants has already fallen, and the rest stand mutely but menacingly over the neighbors' yard.

A Marin County Superior Court recently ruled in the neighbors' favor, decreeing that the trees must go. As another court said so eloquently many years ago, "A Eucalyptus tree that falls in the urban landscape is not an Act of God," or words to that effect. If these trees topple, their owner is likely to be on the hook, especially after having been warned of the hazard she is harboring.

The owner of the trees, however, has vowed not to remove them, "pledging to take the fight to the Supreme Court - or even jail - if necessary to protect her trees. 'This is why I bought the property. It has a lot of sentimental meaning to me.'"(San Francisco Chronicle, November 17, 2009.)

The case is on appeal and we will be watching it with interest.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Trees and Views and other Disputes

Trees and Views are often points of contention in Marin County and other Bay Area towns and Cities. People love their trees and their views. Neighbors go to war against neighbors in order to maintain one or the other.

Often the casualties of these wars are the trees. They lie forlorn on the ground like dead soldiers, or are spirited away in the night like prisoners of war. Neighbors have been known to chop, spike, poison and slowly hack away at their neighbors trees, as they poke their heads up into the views.

Most valued are Bay vistas, but distant hills, valleys and even other trees are often the views in contention.

In other cases, neighbors let their raggedy cypress or leggy bamboo grow over, under and through their neighbor's fences and hedges, as if to thumb a leafy nose at the neighbor's concerns.
Many towns have enacted ordinances that address these issues. Protecting Heritage trees and setting forth procedures for squabbling neighbors to settle their differences without resorting to the axe or the courtroom. Often these efforts are in vain. Many times I have been called out after the damage is done. The trees are in pieces, the neighbors not speaking. What is the recourse but to sue the miscreants?

Or a feud that may have begun over a barking dog, or an overturned garbage can has turned into a full blown battle Royal. Bamboo spite fences soar high into the air, blocking sunlight from the neighbors. Stealthy actions take place in the wee hours of the morning; fences themselves, inanimate objects that they are, begin to inch along the ground, metal survey stakes that have been embedded in hard earth for decades vanish overnight. Giant trees fall like match sticks. "Prove it," growl the neighbors to one another from across the conference tables of their lawyers. Or the lawyers of their insurance companies. Where are the mediators, the peacemakers? Alas, sad but true, these are the kinds of cases that should settle through mediation and most often do not.

Do you have tree, view or property dispute issues you'd like to discuss on this Blog? Send them to me as a comment, and we'll post the best.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Things that go Bark! in the night

There is little more annoying than being wakened up in the middle of the night, night after night, by the barking of dogs. Whether yapping from a distant hillside or next door neighbor woofs. Nocturnal baying, whining, bellowing and howling are not only unwelcome, they may well be illegal as well.

What is it that possesses otherwise normal human beings to leave their pet Fido outside in the night, where he can be distracted by all sorts of critters that prowl after dark? Raccoons, skunks, deer, teenagers stealthily returning home after curfew, and marauding cats, all can turn man’s best friend into his worst nightmare.

Here are some tips for those of you whose sleep has unraveled due to the insensitivity of neighbors:

First track the offenders down, then:

1. Talk to the neighbor. sometimes they just do not realize their beloved pooches go from darling Dr. Jekyll when they are around to menacing Mr. Hyde in the dark of the night. Are other neighbors affected? Try a petition or maybe an intervention. Be polite, but let the offending dog owner know there are real problems with this behavior.

2. Record the yipping. You’d be surprised how effective this can be when played back over the offender’s answering machine, to convince them, yes, it is their dog making all that racket.

3. Know your local ordinances. Most cities and towns have noise ordinances prohibiting the dog barking that continues for an unreasonable time, or late into the night, usually after 10 PM or so. Present this information in your initial approach.

4. Do call the police. If the friendly methods don’t work, the police will respond to a noise complaint. Sometimes a warning from the boys in blue is all it takes for a recalcitrant dog owner to quiet the pooches down.

5. Have a lawyer write a letter. Sometimes this is the only thing that shows you are serious. There are stiff penalties for this kind of nuisance, including having the dogs removed from their owners’ possession. A lawyer can explain this in terms that may get their attention, if they have blown you and the local constabulary off.

6. Take the scoundrels to court. Yes, Virginia, there is a doggie court. It’s the court of last resort in a neighborhood dispute. Bow Wow! True story. My neighbors and I had been woken up repeatedly by the barking and howling of multiple dogs living up the hill from us. We had left notes, we had left phone messages; the offending pet owner vowed to keep the hounds quiet.

But over and over, he and his family would blithely go off for who knows what entertainment, leaving the canine family outside until the wee hours. Finally, a neighbor down the street had it and took the man to court. The judge said “Fred, you got no alibi; cuz you were somewhere else, your dogs will have to …” no not die, but be quieted. Electric fence, bark collars, or just put the damn things in the house, or take them in the car with you.

Backsliding is often cured with a gentle reminder of what else the judge said, "we don’t want to see you here again, or we will take the dogs away." Tough justice? Maybe, but when you can’t sleep, and you’ve tried all the other neighborly approaches, you may need to fight barking with biting.