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Laguna Chainsaw Massacre: Can You Do Jail Time for Saving Old Trees?

One South Laguna couple have been threatened with exactly that, because the 80-year-old trees block their neighbor's ocean view.

OC Weekly's R. Scott Moxley is, hands-down, the best investigative reporter in Orange County, and I'm not just saying that because I used to work with him. For a Moxley primer, click here and read how he helped bring down corrupt former Sheriff Mike Carona.

And if that ain't proof enough, then check out Moxley's latest expose, in which he centers his scope on Laguna Beach—specifically, a case that involves our fair city's eternal drama between Amazing Ocean Views and The Things That Block Them.

The details are practically operatic, and take place on South Laguna's 10th Street, where retired couple David Pahnos and Barry Stephens have been ordered by the city to chop down the healthy 80-year-old trees on their property because the neighbors living above them say the trees hinder their view of the Pacific.

These neighbors, according to Moxley, have connections. From the story:

Wayne E. Phelps, a Dana Point mortgage broker, and his wife, Erika Ritchie Phelps, an Orange County Register reporter who used to cover Laguna Beach and continues to enjoy personal relationships with a long list of city bureaucrats, don't care about the consequences. Starting in July 2010, they hired Steve Kawaratani, a well-connected local lobbyist, and began filing "Hedge Height Claims" against their neighbors. Their goal was entirely selfish and misguided. By forcing Pahnos and Stephens to chop down trees, the property the Phelpses bought in 2004 would obtain what it hadn't had since 1932: nearly unobstructed ocean views.

As Moxley also points out, the Phelps' property values would shoot up if the trees were no longer there. Erika Ritchie now covers Rancho Santa Margarita, Lake Forest, and other South Orange County cities.

Thing is, Pahnos and Stephens have perfectly sound reasons for not complying with city demands to axe the trees. They say the trees' roots help keep the land, which is part of a watershed, from shifting during a rainstorm and avalanching their home down onto Coast Highway.

Moxley goes on with even juicier details: accusations of the City Council and the Design Review Board favoriting the Phelps; the city issuing a $1,000-per-day fine against Pahnos and Stephens—with threats of imprisonment—if the trees aren't chopped down; and accounts of Laguna Beach officials shopping around for a friendly judge in the case who would rule in the city's favor.

In other words, a great read, so here's the link again.

Dave T. September 13, 2012 at 03:44 PM
there needs to be a balance between views and the beauty and benefits of mature trees. You can effectively trim a tree to allow views through the tree, around the tree. Trees also frame a view...get creative. dt Westcliff Nurses...home health care.
April Josephson September 18, 2012 at 12:09 AM
Thanks for writing this, Rich. This is a typical story in Laguna Beach, and something I've seen way too much of...

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