The Battle of Mountain Oaks
As I’ve related in my past two columns, the small neighborhood of Mountain Oaks has a fascinating history – speakeasy, resort, real estate scam, development battleground, and semi-rural paradise for the handful of lucky homeowners who live in the 45 acres of oak-covered hillsides. But another fascinating and far-reaching part of its history is that Glendale’s famous (some would say infamous) oak tree ordinance was born over 30 years ago in Mountain Oaks.
It was a quiet Saturday morning in February 1982. Birds sang in the early morning light. The grass was tall and green in the central meadow of Mountain Oaks, and massive oak trees ringed the edges. The forest continued up the hillsides to shade the 12 homes nestled there. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by the sound of several chainsaws starting at once. The residents looked out their windows to see five husky men wielding massive chainsaws fanning out through the meadow to the edges of the oak forest. As they reached the tree line, they put their saws to tree trunks, cut quickly through letting them fall, and rapidly moving to the next tree. They were cutting trees down as fast as they could.
The residents ran down to the meadow to demand they stop, but the woodcutters ignored their pleas, shouting back that they were clearing the land for development, then went back to cutting. Yelling and threats competed with the whine of chainsaws until the helpless residents realized there was no stopping them. Many ran back to their homes to make desperate calls to the city, to the police, to preservation groups … all to no avail. After a couple of hours of this, a couple of the more desperate residents ran back to their homes to get their guns. It was then that the police took notice, and realized that they had a powder keg about to go off in Mountain Oaks. They rolled up and stopped the tree cutters, but too late for the 79 mature trees that lay on the ground, 63 of them big oak trees.
The tree cutters had done nothing illegal. There was no law on Glendale’s books against cutting down trees on private property. Nonetheless, the city, and the community at large, were aghast at the enormity of the clear cut. The property owner, an Irvine-based developer who had title to 13 acres in Mountain Oaks, was unrepentant, even arrogant. He said he was following the county’s weed abatement program, although the county rebutted that they never tell property owners to remove green, growing vegetation.
The owner further stated that he wanted to “take something that was an eyesore and transform it into something beautiful – something the city could be proud of.”
But the city wasn’t buying it. A city councilman summed it up, saying the owner was actually trying to circumvent the normal development process, in which removal of the trees would be a factor in the development plan. The developer was simply making sure the existence of almost 100 big oaks was not going to be part of the negotiations. The developer misjudged public opinion, however; the community demanded action from the Glendale City Council. Within a week, the council had somewhat reluctantly put into place an ordinance requiring a permit to cut down or significantly trim oak and sycamore trees. The developer, sensing a little hostility, moved on, leaving behind fallen trees and the still standing Glendale tree ordinance. Since that time most other communities have enacted tree ordinances of their own.
Mountain Oaks survived that blow, and other development attempts, although it’s obvious there will be development attempts in the future. In the 30-plus years since the Battle of Mountain Oaks, the gaps in the oak forest have healed, filling with new growth. Today the 12 homeowners in Mountain Oaks cherish their (slightly smaller) oak groves and green meadows. Their peace is disturbed only by the random curious hiker and the occasional misbehaving dog that has been kicked out of the dog park. May their peaceful lives go on forever.