California fights over trees inflame emotions

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People adore their own trees but often vilify the trees of neighbors that block views, drop leaves or limbs, topple and smash cars, or buckle driveways with intrusive roots.

Conflicts over trees can rage months or years with great intensity. Sometimes the fight swirls around damage and liability. Other times, overgrown egos clash and trees become an excuse for battle.

Redwoods blocked Ellison’s view

Larry Ellison, founder and chairman of Oracle with 2017 net worth estimated at more than $60 billion, bought a 10,000-square-foot home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. His neighbors, Jane and Bernard von Bothmer, had a pair of redwoods that grew to shield their privacy from Ellison’s frequent parties — and block Ellison’s view of the bay. The business titan tried to buy the von Bothmer home for $15 million; they said no. Eventually Ellison sued, demanding that the neighbors trim the redwoods.

With trial set for June 2011, the case settled and the von Bothmers agreed to trim trees. Then Ellison bought the house next door, 22 bedrooms for $40 million, further ensuring his view.

Sausalito attorney Barri Kaplan Bonapart represented Ellison and prevailed. “The neighbors pitched it as a David and Goliath case,” she said. “He had billions. They only had hundreds of millions,” she said.

“I was very pleased. Not only is he intelligent and interesting,” but Ellison tried to be considerate of his neighbors, she said, and “take the socially responsible approach,” not filing suit right away.

Bonapart started handling tree cases in the late 1980s, mostly in the Bay Area.

Battles never about trees

“It’s never about the trees,” Bonapart said. “It’s about getting to the emotional and psychological underpinnings that create disputes between people. Trees often serve as a lightning rod for those issues.” Wherever possible, she nudges tree-related disputes toward mediation, seeking opportunities to restore harmony.

When people go through personal struggles such as business failure, illness, job loss, divorce or death of a loved one, they feel loss of control.

“They try and exercise control and dominion over something else,” Bonapart said, especially their homes.

“I became hooked” on mediation as the best way to resolve skirmishes over trees, she said. “Slugging it out in the courtroom is one way. By the end of that process, everybody ends up bloodied. Even if you won, often it was a pyrrhic victory.”

When she coaches clients in mediation sessions, she often counsels them to first apologize for anything they may have done to offend the other party. An apology may soften the tone of the conflict and open a bridge to resolution. “Build a foundation upon which neighborly dialog can occur,” Bonapart said. “Whatever you say after that, they’re more likely to hear.”

Sometimes a neighbor opposes a remodeling project by the homeowner next door. If the project goes forward anyway, the neighbor who opposed may resurrect the conflict in a fight over trees. “It could be retaliatory,” Bonapart said. “Emotions run high in all these cases.”

If a neighbor’s trees appear to jeopardize health or safety, “that’s pretty emotional stuff,” she said.

Tree caused wrongful death

Cases involving serious damage wrought by trees may end in court. Bonapart handled one wrongful-death case that arose from a toppled tree. The confidential settlement was millions of dollars.

Another case followed the Cavedale Fire of 1996, which sprawled over parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. “I represented two homeowners” who sued PG&E “because it failed to trim a tree near a power line,” Bonapart said. “A limb failure sparked the fire.”

Total resolution from PG&E came to nearly $4 million. The company’s subsequent vigilant tree trimming around power lines has caused concern among some property owners about loss of tree canopy.

She’s handling one case currently involving a pine tree in Mill Valley that fell on a neighbor’s home, “crushing the home,” she said. “Fortunately, nobody was injured or killed. It wasn’t that bad of a storm. The roots had been compromised. It didn’t take much for that tree to fall over.”

She suggests that the failure could have been predicted and prevented with astute trimming. Sometimes property owners who have large trees tumble attribute the failure to an “act of god,” she said. “People love to blame things on god.”

In December 1995, a hundred-year storm hit the Bay Area, causing massive flooding and landslides. “Hundreds of trees came down all over,” Bonapart said, “particularly in the North Bay.” A tree fell across the highway, hit her client’s car and caused permanent disability.

The tree was a blue-gum eucalyptus, part of a row of trees. “We saw evidence of prior failures,” she said. “Power lines had been spliced together. Another motorist had been hit by a tree in that row six months prior to the incident on a perfectly calm day.” She resolved the case with a damage payment to her client.

Eucalyptus trees cause hazards

“We have seen a lot of safety issues with blue-gum eucalyptus, as well as fire issues,” Bonapart said. The eucalyptus is particularly dense. “One limb can weigh as much as an SUV.”

In a case that arose in 1954 in Napa County, Coates v. Chinn, plaintiffs were the widow and child of a man killed when his car hit a big limb that had tumbled from a eucalyptus into the road. The lower court held that the landowner was not responsible and dismissed the suit; the appellate court reversed, according to Stanford Law School, ruling that the case could go to trial because “the distinguishing factor is the natural propensity of healthy, untrimmed eucalyptus limbs to fall to the ground and defendants’ knowledge of such propensity,” causing a non-natural condition.

In one case, a Larkspur woman owned property that had some 50 eucalyptus trees. “They would drop limbs and debris on her neighbors’ property,” Bonapart said. “That ended up going to trial.” The judgment, with no money damages, required the woman to remove 40 trees.

“As they age and become more brittle, more of a liability, more of a danger,” she said about eucalyptus trees, “there are few options left other than to remove them.”

As with the Ellison case, view disputes involving trees are common, especially in Marin County. Bonapart had view-dispute cases a couple of years ago in Tiburon and Belvedere. “They can be some of the most contentious cases,” she said. “People pay millions of dollars for these homes.”

What’s yours will be mine

She represented tree owners in the Belvedere case. Neighbors “bought the house without a full view of the Golden Gate Bridge. They were trying to create one,” she said, by suing her clients to force removal of blocking trees. “In wealthy areas like Marin, you get people with unlimited resources, too much time on their hands and this overdeveloped sense of entitlement. What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours will someday be mine as well.”

Redwoods have large but shallow root systems and can give rise to disputes involving root encroachment. “Roots are very powerful,” Bonapart said. “I once handled a case where a root was lifting a house off the foundation. We love redwoods, but you don’t want to plant a redwood between two homes located 20 feet apart. You are asking for problems.”

Coast redwoods (sequoia sempervirens) grow fast, sometimes more than two feet a year. Giant sequoias (sequoiadendron giganteum) grow about one to two feet a year.

Topping tree creates risk

“By topping a redwood tree, you are actually creating more risk,” Bonapart said. Stems grow around the outside, weakly attached to the main trunk. “One of those falls down, it acts like a spear. It can go right through the roof of your home or a car or person.” Under one state code section, tree topping may be considered arborist malpractice, she said. “Topping is a dirty word in the arborist community.”

Sudden-oak-death syndrome, first discovered by arborist Ken Bovero in Mill Valley in the 1990s, raises issues. The disease, caused by fungus Phytophthora ramorum, can kill a tree rapidly and create a falling hazard. Some treatments control spread of the disease, Bonapart said. “If you are a tree-care company and you don’t follow protocol,” such as sterilizing pruning tools and properly disposing debris, that can lead to liability.

“Trees are an asset to the community,” Bonapart said. “We love the natural environment” in Marin. “We appreciate trees for everything they provide us.”

But trees can also cause liability. “Trees kill,” she said. “Actually (it’s) people who fail to appreciate the power that these beautiful, magnificent specimens have to wreak havoc.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at: or 707-521-4257

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