Attorney offers $7,000 for lopping off tree branches | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Attorney offers $7,000 for lopping off tree branches

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Tahoe Daily Tribune fileThe trimmed branches of this tree were at the center of lawsuit against the TRPA.

A prominent Lake Tahoe attorney who sued the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency last year has agreed to drop the lawsuit and settle an illegal tree-trimming case against him for $7,000.

Mel Laub, 67, of Zephyr Cove said the legal battle required to fight the agency over whether it sufficiently publicized the rules it has established to protect trees at Lake Tahoe Basin is not worth the time or money.

The case involved limbs cut from three pine trees near Laub’s home. The agreement to settle the case still must be approved by the TRPA Governing Board when it meets Feb. 26.

The board last year rejected a $3,000 settlement offer from Laub saying the fine should be $6,000 because it involved someone enhancing their view of the lake and affected more than one tree.

Laub said he will not be attending the Governing Board meeting because he has prior plans, but he said he hopes the settlement is approved to avoid burning up more of his and the taxpayers’ money.

“Like I’ve (said) in the past, I’m for the environment like they are,” Laub said. “I’m not opposed to the TRPA. I think they’ve done some good. It’s a matter of principals versus economics.”

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The newly proposed settlement agreement would require $1,000 of the $7,000 to be used for environmental education, Laub said.

Laub has contended since 2001 when the illegal tree work was discovered that he was not aware of rules that forbid the trimming of trees.

“It really didn’t get out to the public,” Laub said. “It’s a relatively new law and not common through the United States by any stretch of the imagination.”

The contractor who did the tree work, Joe Benigno, at one point advertised the fact that he would trim trees to enhance views of the lake. Benigno settled his violations last year by providing 120 hours of free tree work to the state of Nevada. If he had refused to do the work, the TRPA would have fined him $12,000.

Benigno was ordered to do the work for Nevada because he also performed illegal tree work on state land for Laub’s neighbor, Paul Porch. Porch is accused of ordering the topping or cutting of limbs from nine trees, four of which sat on state land next to his home, which he has since sold.

The TRPA also contends that Porch asked for the work to be done to improve views of the lake from his house.

TRPA’s case against Porch remains in court. The agency is suing Porch to obtain an $11,000 fine it levied against him. Porch has argued he should not be liable for the violation because Benigno, a licensed tree surgeon, should have known the work was illegal.

Porch’s attorney, Michael K. Johnson of Stateline, has said the lawsuit should be dismissed because it was filed after a legal deadline had passed.

According to the TRPA, property owners at the basin cannot remove or damage live, healthy trees greater than 6-inches in diameter unless a qualified forester issues them a permit for the work. The forester must inspect it and determine the tree or its limbs pose a threat to a structure or a utility.

For more information about tree cutting, go to http://www.trpa.org or call or stop by the agency on Elks Point Road in Round Hill, to obtain a copy of the Property Owner’s Guide to Cutting Trees.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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