Fight over Oakland trees, views not over
By the time Phyllis Bishop won the right to trim and clear her neighbors' trees and regain the panoramic bay view from her Oakland hills home, 25 years had passed, her husband Lloyd had died, and she was living in a retirement home.
Bishop, 95, sighed with relief at the victory of an epic legal and political battle with her neighbors that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Yet, once the neighbors' trees were cleared this year, Bishop noticed that city trees blocked the view from her property, violating a city ordinance.
It didn't matter that she no longer lived in her home, which she is now renting. She began negotiating for the clearing of the city trees - the cost of which she would pay - out of a sense of justice and on grounds that it affects the property's value. The city agreed, but one set of neighbors objected.
"Guess who?" Bishop said.
That would be Okhoo and Ernest Hanes, the neighbors who lost their fight with her to keep their trees.
They - like Bishop - no longer live in their Oakland hills home but rent it out. They now live in Napa.
The Bishops and the Haneses once lived near each other in the hills, tied only by a property line until the decades-long feud intertwined them. Tuesday, they'll go before the City Council for what Bishop hopes will be the last fight. Okhoo Hanes is unsure the end of the battle is near, even though she and her husband, both 55, have lost more than $200,000 in legal fees and many trees they cherished.
Asked whether she would sue or take another tack if the city agrees to remove the trees, Okhoo Hanes said, "I don't know."
Monterey cypresses and Monterey pines.
A home with a viewPhyllis and Lloyd Bishop moved into their home in 1964. They could see Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Treasure Island.
"To own a part of this beautiful part of the world was a privilege," said Phyllis, who was born in Oakland and who, like her husband, was an Oakland schoolteacher. "We'd traveled. We knew this was special."
Wary that developers would build up the property below them, she said they successfully sought an easement ensuring nothing would be built to block their view before they bought the house. But it only referred to buildings.
"It didn't refer to vegetation," she said ruefully. "We didn't anticipate that."
For 23 years, the Bishops asked their neighbors if they could pay for the tree trimming. The neighbors always said yes, said Phyllis.
Then, in 1984, the Haneses moved in. Three years later, the Bishops saw that it was time for a trimming. Six previous owners of the Hanes home had always agreed. The Haneses didn't.
"It had no effect on the people who owned the property, but it maintained the view," she said.
The Bishops say they tried to talk to the Haneses. They asked their city councilman to intervene. They suggested a mediator. They offered to buy land covered by the foliage.
"They wouldn't talk about it at all," Bishop said. "Finally, we sued them."
The Bishops used Oakland's View Ordinance as their justification. The ordinance allows property owners to restore "a reasonable amount of the view that they had when they purchased their property, whether the trees are growing on public or private property," according to a city report. Native trees and trees on park property are exempt.
After the city reworked its ordinance, the courts ultimately upheld the Bishops' contention that they had the right to trim the trees.
Councilwoman Libby Schaaf grew up within a mile of the disputed trees and now represents the area.
"It's one of the things that's amazing about Oakland: We have bay views while still living in the forest," she said. "But trees do grow taller. ... It's tragic that this neighborhood dispute has gone on so long and taken up public resources."
Seeking sanctuaryThe Haneses, too, believe in the righteousness of their cause. Where the Bishops saw expansiveness in the treeless view, the Haneses found the sanctuary that comes with living among trees.
The trees "gave a sense of seclusion," said Okhoo Hanes. Despite the urban setting, she said the trees meant "we had a feeling of living in a hideaway."
After the state Supreme Court denied their appeal last October - two days after Lloyd Bishop died at age 89 - the Haneses were forced to clear their trees.
"After the tree removal, we lost a sense of enclosure," she said.
In the current appeal, the Haneses say that landslides are a risk. An engineer disagrees. In addition, city staffers note, the Fire Department had "excessive vegetation" in the area removed in 2009, and no landslides occurred.
Both sides see slightsBoth sides have an accounting of slights. Phyllis Bishop remembers welcoming the Haneses to the neighborhood, she said, only to have Okhoo respond rudely. Okhoo Hanes said it still stings to think of how the Bishops, she says, said that land with just wild trees and shrubs had no value.
"That's an example of the attitude they showed toward us," Okhoo Hanes said. "They didn't value our ownership even though they were adamant in asserting their property rights."
Both families talk of the children raised in their homes. Bishop hopes that one of her two adult children will eventually live in the property.
"I've done about all I can do," Bishop said. "I'm going to try to outlive them. I don't know if I will or not. Would you care to place a bet?"
This article has been corrected since it appeared in print versions.