Sunday, August 21, 2011

Who ya gonna call when you got tree problems? Call the Tree Detective!

Here's an article about my husband, consulting arborist, fire ecologist, certified tree hazard assessor and urban forester, Ray Moritz. Got tree issues? He's the one for you. Got neighbor issues too? We work together on Tree Dispute Mediation.

Check it out.

Arborist Ray Moritz sees the forest for the trees

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Ray Moritz grew up in a prairie town in Illinois. He always loved trees, and in the second grade he took an aptitude test that concluded, "You should be a forester."

"I ignored that all the way through the first portion of college," Moritz says. "I wanted to go into biopsychology - the study of brain function. But then I started doing docent work at an arboretum on weekends and I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is what I want to do.' "

Moritz, 67, hasn't looked back. An arborist specializing in fire-prevention assessment and urban forestry consultation, he alternately calls himself a tree detective, a tree whisperer and a forensic forester. He's worked 36 years in his field

"I love what I do," Moritz says in the San Rafael office of his consulting firm, Urban Forestry Associates. "I can't imagine doing anything in retirement I would prefer to this. They'll have to carry me out of the woods feet first."

Fifty percent of his work is private consultation: advising homeowners on which trees to plant, how to treat diseased or pest-ridden trees, when trees should be left alone and when they're a safety hazard and need to be felled.

Another 25 percent of Moritz's work is fire-management consultation and the remaining 25 percent is forensics: investigating cases where someone poisons a neighbor's tree, for example, or determining how a tree or its limb crashed onto a person, house or car and who, if anyone, is at fault. He's often hired as an expert witness on tree-related disputes at civil trials.

Poisoning a neighbor's tree? Moritz says it happens all the time, "simply because they find the tree a nuisance. You'll hear people say, 'I don't like trees because they're dirty.' In most cases they are people who grew up in highly urbanized areas, then moved to the country and aren't used to having leaves and twigs around."

From 2004 to 2009, Moritz wrote a twice-monthly column, Ask the Arborist, for The Chronicle. "It was a lot of fun, but after each column, I would come into the office with great dread because when I opened my e-mail, there would be a lot of questions about trees. It was consuming a big portion of my time, and people would get upset if I didn't answer them."

The passion felt for our trees can lead to bad decisions. "Trees have great psychological meaning to people," Moritz says, "and one of the commonly mistaken notions is that trees are eternal. There are some trees that are awfully long-lived and, generally speaking, trees have longer life expectancies than people. But there are many trees that don't."

In the Bay Area, "there was a lot of grazing land when people first settled here. They wanted trees for shade and enjoyment and they wanted them fast. So they went out and got what I call the 'punk rockers' of the tree world: eucalyptus, Monterey pine, Monterey cypress, poplars. The live-fast, die-young, be-a-beautiful-corpse trees."

The people who planted those trees in the early 20th century are long deceased, Moritz says, "and the current homeowners and cities are dealing with the decay and decline of those trees. In the past two years, I've had more wrongful-death cases caused by tree failures than in my entire prior career of over 30 years."

Moritz says that people get attached to trees, they dread their loss, and that when a tree is gone, they mourn it like a beloved friend. "When the tree has to go altogether, when I've made a hazard assessment and I recommend immediate removal, some people are reluctant and don't remove it. I make it clear to them that, once I have notified them of this high risk of failure, their liability changes should that tree damage someone else or their property."

Usually, people respond to an imminent hazard. "Yesterday, a homeowner noticed some cracks in the soils around a couple of Monterey pines. While the trees were not a particular threat to her house, they were on a steep slope, and they actually targeted her neighbor's house across the street.

"So I went out there and probed the soils and realized that the root plate of the tree was lifting up. That tree was essentially in the process of failure. I believe that tree is being taken out today."

3 simple rules

"Trees got along fine for millennia before there were arborists," says Ray Moritz. Although special care is needed in urban settings with the stresses of pavement, home construction and pollutants, he says that in general "there's much more work done on trees than necessary." Here are his three simple mistakes to avoid:

1. Don't overwater: The most common problem I encounter when I inspect trees is excessive irrigation - which is surprising in Marin County, where water costs practically as much as Chardonnay. The symptoms on a tree of inadequate water are very similar to the symptoms of too much water. So, people see a tree starting to die back, the leaves changing color and browning, and they'll think, "It needs more water." They put more water on it and the tree declines that much faster.

2. Don't overspray: Trees are well adapted to most native pathogens and insects. And those pests have natural enemies - typically other insects - that maintain a balance in the forest. If you consistently and abundantly use broad-spectrum pesticides, spraying the whole canopy repeatedly, you kill off the predators. You're actually making the problem worse.

3. Don't top your trees: Topping takes out the physiologically most productive portion of the canopy. You can reduce the extent and height of the canopy through crown reduction, where you take a branch back to a secondary branch that can ultimately take over as the leader. But, if you cut that branch off arbitrarily, it produces sprout growth. As the sprouts get large, becoming branches, they're easily torn away from the tree by wind or simply fail under their own weight.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More on Tree Mediation

Property Issues Crop up in Many Different Venues

If you are a lawyer reading this, know that at some time in your legal career, you will come up against property questions. Maybe you are administering an estate and need to determine the true boundaries of the real property. Is there an easement for ingress and egress that appears to be abandoned, but creates a cloud on the title because it’s still there in the deed documents?

Does the neighbor have a menacing looking row of Eucalyptus trees leaning toward your client’s house? Has a fire turned the property into rubble and you’re not sure who is to blame?

Even the most simple personal injury case involving the classic failure to yield collision may have some property management implications. Was the yield sign or line of sight obscured because the adjacent property owner failed to maintain a hedge in reasonable condition?

Did Caltrans let those median pittosporums get too scraggly for proper driving conditions?

All these and more can require expert opinions and evaluations beyond the standard accident recreations or investigations you deal with every day.

There are a number of tree experts who testify on these issues, including forensic foresters, fire ecologists, consulting arborists and others. There are surveyors and land engineers who can help bolster your case. When power line clearances are at issue, or trees improperly trimmed by power company crews cause major fires, liability fingers can be pointed all around; and will be.

Tree Dispute Mediation:

The most frequent issue that arises in my practice is Tree versus View. In towns with prized views of the Bay, these disputes are frequent and often nasty. Neighbor is pitted against neighbor. Sometimes drastic action is taken by one neighbor to retain or obtain a view. I have known people to do midnight tree topping or poison their neighbor’s trees and plants while maintaining righteous indignation that those pesky trees had the nerve to grow into their expansive (and expensive) view.

I have seen people defend the rights of looming eucalyptus, scruffy Monterey pines and scraggly acacias to grow as high as they like, ignoring polite offerings to trim the trees or mediate.

Both sides will say “I don't care how much it costs. It’s the principle of the thing!" when given an estimate of the cost for legal wrangling, including experts, court fees, attorney and mediator fees.

There are no winners in these pitched battles. Neighbors become embittered toward one another no matter the outcome. No amount of money can compensate for the loss of trees, the privacy and screening they provide, shade and shelter, and just plain beauty. On the other hand, messy foliage blocking your view of the Bay may serve no other function then to annoy the viewer. Most often, these disputes build over time until one side cannot take it anymore and fireworks ensue.

Stop the Cycle

How to stop the cycle? Some towns have Tree Committees, made up of volunteers, who will hear disputes and offer advisory opinions. Unfortunately, these citizen boards are composed of lay people, often with little or no understanding of botany or appreciation for the amenities the right trees can provide. Seldom do the disputes end amicably.

And neighbors hesitate to mediate their problems, fearing yet another round of “let’s make a deal” when all they want is what they see to be their rights: “My property, my trees.” “My property, my view.”

Something New - Mediation with a Twist

Twenty years of these same arguments and counterarguments have prompted me to try something new. Our firm, Green Legal Solutions, now offers mediation with a twist. We have teamed up with a consulting arborist and certified hazard tree assessor to act as neutral in mediation on tree issues. Will it work? Only if people are willing to listen to a “scientific” assessment of the problem. If they do, and if they can suspend their own personal animosity, maybe, just maybe, they can find the right compromise that will work. Otherwise, they will be back to hiring their own dueling arborists, go to more mediation and settlement conferences, maybe even to trial, to achieve something that is likely to look very much like what they could have achieved for far less in money, time and aggravation.

Tree Dispute Mediation: Try it in your next tree case.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

City Blinks First on Albert Park Pro Ball Issue

The City of San Rafael has been poised to approve a controversial proposal to bring pro baseball to the community's Albert Park field located adjacent to the densely populated Gerstle Park neighborhood. Currently, the ballfield hosts many youth and adult baseball teams throughout Marin and the Bay Area, a number of whom will be displaced by a pro team's use of the field. The proposal by Centerfield Partners (CP), of Dublin, California, would essentially allow the private for-profit company free rein with the public park, including doubling the seating capacity, using the park for at least 15 weekends from late May through early Autumn. Residents in Gerstle Park and the Southern Heights neighborhood have raised concerns over parking, traffic congestion on local streets and increased noise reverberating up to hillside dwellers.

Amplified music, concession stands in park open space and a grove of redwood trees and the sale of alcohol, have added to the residents' complaints, forcing them to hire attorneys, take up petitions and form an association, dedicated to pressuring the Council to perform necessary environmental review.

The association, Communities for Albert Park (CAP), has won the first skirmish in what may be a protracted baseball war. Previously the Council as well as the parks and Rec Department had insisted the project was exempt from review under California's Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

After repeated hearings, letters and testimony from attorneys retained by CAP, including land use attorney Dotty LeMieux, whose office is in Gerstle Park, the City grudgingly agreed to perform the first step in CEQA review, the preparation of an Initial Study, which will be used to determine whether a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR), or a less detailed Mitigated Negative Declaration of environmental Impact (Neg. Dec.) is required.

At least the subcommittee made up of Council member Damon Connolly and Mayor Al Boro so agreed. The full Council will vote on Monday night whether to take this step. It should have come months ago. But it is a step in the right direction, and CAP applauds the City for relenting (though the City maintains it is not required, and agreed to it only after CP, realizing it was bucking a strong and well organized community group, whose good will they need to succeed, agreed to fund the study).

This study will not answer all the community's questions and may well raise more, but as Attorney Dotty LeMieux said, "We are grateful to the Mayor for realizing this the the right thing to do for the City and for the environment." She added, "We will however, be sure to make our wished known for what the Initial Study should look at in order to assure the best information is provided and the City doesn't simply use a cookie cutter checklist to justify not doing a full environmental review for this major change in use of a popular public facility."