Sandy and Herb Oberman have lived on Pinewood Avenue in Oak Park for 50 years. On their curb is a pine tree that was planted before they bought their home. It’s one of the tallest in the neighborhood.
Today, the Obermans are locked in a dispute with Ventura County officials who told them the tree, which lies in a median between the curb and the sidewalk, has to be removed. The county says the roots are raising the curb and sidewalk, creating safety issues.
“Last January the county sent out letters that they’d be checking sidewalks, that some trees may have to come down,” Sandy Oberman said. “They say it’s too big for the spot it’s in. One of the letters I got says the curb is their responsibility. In 50 years they haven’t done anything to the curb, so if it’s jutting out it’s because of their lack of maintenance.”
Under California law, the homeowner is responsible for maintaining the sidewalks along their property. If they don’t, the county does the work and bills the homeowner.
A work crew removed four sections of sidewalk around the tree in July.
Dave Fleisch, director of the Ventura County Department of Transportation, said the county removed the slabs after the Obermans neglected to address the problem.
If sidewalks are raised by an inch or less, the edges can be ground down until they meet, a process called ramping.
“We don’t allow ramping if (the county is) going to do the repairs. If the Obermans wanted to do the repairs themselves, they’re welcome to (ramp), but they chose not to,” Fleisch said.
“The problem with not dealing with the tree is if you don’t cut the roots, you don’t get rid of the problem that’s causing the sidewalk to lift in the first place. We don’t do temporary repairs. If we’re going to fix it we’ve got to trim the tree roots.”
Fleisch said a report filed by a county-hired arborist said that cutting the roots means the tree could fall over. The report recommended removing it.
But the Obermans want to keep the venerable old tree. Fleisch discussed options with the county’s legal counsel, who recommended the couple obtain a $3-million liability insurance policy that absolves the county of legal responsibility for the sidewalk.
Sidewalks are public space, so the county is liable for any injuries that might occur there. A 2006 Ventura County ordinance also made the homeowner liable.
But the Obermans said their insurance company won’t give them a policy that would satisfy the county’s requirements. They say the county’s tactics amount to bullying and intimidation— the first letter from the county said that if the couple failed to take action or if they refused to pay the county for the work done on their behalf, a lien could be placed on their home.
“I worked for L.A. County for 35 years. I would’ve been fired for something like that,” Herb Oberman said. “To threaten somebody with a lien on their house is unconscionable.”
Fleisch said the county has a duty to inform property owners about the potential for a lien so they know from the outset what steps the county will take to address a problem.
Other Oak Park residents have made their own cases to save the tree, which is one of the oldest in the community. Fleisch was contacted by a member of the Oak Park Municipal Advisory
Council, who asked him to reconsider.
Oak Park resident Carolyn Cass-Barton also reached out. She had a problem with the sidewalks in front of her house—one slab was replaced and another ground down. She asked why the county couldn’t do the same for the Obermans’ sidewalk.
“It’s like comparing cars that were in two different accidents— why’d you replace the fender on this one and the hood on that one?” Fleisch said. “The tree in front of (Cass-Barton’s) house is much smaller, it was affecting the sidewalk differently. All I’m doing is executing the policy that the board passed. Several times in the last two years the board has reconsidered (the homeowner’s responsibility) and chosen not to repeal the ordinance. They’ve told me to continue with the process that we’re doing.”
Fleisch said he plans to take another look at the tree and meet with the Obermans to discuss how the issue might be resolved.