Indian Wells Ficus Hedge Could Cost $10 Million



Indian Wells, California–It is hard to believe the lowly ficus could stir such controversy, but a hedge in Indian Wells may wind up with a $10 million pricetag, payable by the city.

The hedge has already cost the city a great deal of money, and now the litigants are fighting over attorney’s fees.  A civil rights suit has been filed in U.S. District Court that may wind up costing the city $10 million to settle.  All of this for a simple ficus hedge?  Yes–according to partners Doug Lawellin and Steve Rohlin, owners of a kitchenware store in Palm Desert.

How Did A Hedge Become The Center of Controversy?

The 26 feet tall, 83 feet long and 11 feet wide hedge was the “reason we bought” the home, according to Lawellin.  However, a neighbor, Susan Aldridge, filed a complaint in 2011 stating that the hedge blocked her view of the mountains and wanted the top five feet taken off.  The city had failed to enforce older hedge ordinances, but adopted a new ordinance to take care of the hedge issue.  The protracted, lengthy legal battle that resulted has left everyone exhausted and resulted in the new battle for attorney’s fees.

The controversy stemmed from the allegation that when the new ordinances were put in someone filed a new complaint on the neighbor’s behalf against the rules requiring the neighbor to do it herself.  When the city sent Lawellin a letter asking for the hedge to be cut down to 9 feet, he argued that the code was being selectively enforced.

Enter The Arborists . . .

In this case, a landscaper was also called in to testify.  He said that the hedge had only a 15 percent chance of survival if it was cut so drastically.  The city’s arborist apparently agreed with this assessment, although the city denies that the arborist made such a statement.  Eventually, the couple hired their own arborist who measured the height of the hedge at 26 feet and recommended that no more than one-third be removed annually to give the tree the best chance for survival.  A horticultural journalist also noted that the adjacent property owners may need to make adjustments for their own plants due to sudden lack of shade, and birds may need to find new shelter.

A professional arborist may testify as an expert witness in such cases.  The testimony of an arborist is often the defining factor that leads to a settlement or judgment in such a case.  In this case, once the attorney’s fees issue is worked out, it is to be hoped that the advice of the experts will be implemented to save the hedge and the habitat.

Source:  My Desert, “Ficus Fracas:  Indian Wells focus of $10M lawsuit,” August 28, 2013.