TRPA weighs $35,000 fine over tree cutting |

TRPA weighs $35,000 fine over tree cutting

A Kings Beach homeowner may face a $35,000 fine over allegations that he illegally cut seven Jeffrey pine trees on state property to enhance his view of Lake Tahoe.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board will decide whether to levy the fine at its meeting Wednesday. The agency’s staff has recommended the maximum fine – $5,000 per tree.

The property owner has denied responsibility, claiming the bistate planning agency is picking on an absentee owner.

The agency alleges that Avion Inc., the owner of a home at 489 Beaver St., is responsible for the tree cutting. According to both the agency and the California Tahoe Conservancy, which owns the property where the trees were cut, seven Jeffrey pines were either girdled, limbed or topped. One tree had a rigging system drilled into its trunk to apparently aid in cutting the tree.

“We have nothing to do with that,” said Mark Stewart, asset manager for Avion Inc., when reached by telephone last week. Stewart would not comment on what he or his company, which he said is a property-rental business, would do if the fine is approved.

“They think because we are absentee homeowners, we are an easy target,” Stewart said.

Milan Yeates, a forester with the California Tahoe Conservancy, said the pines ranged from 15 to 25 inches in diameter.

The conservancy owns a number of adjoining vacant lots, said Ray Lacey, the conservancy’s deputy director. Each state parcel is inspected once a year, but damage, vandalism or tree cutting is unusual, he said.

“It’s very rare. Most people really respect what we do and value having conservancy property in the neighborhood,” Lacey said.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency originally proposed a $60,000 fine for the offense, saying 12 trees had been damaged. The reduction to an estimate of seven damaged trees left the agency with a maximum penalty of $35,000.

The agency said it is pursuing the maximum penalty because the offense was egregious, several cut limbs were left in the treetops and posed a hazard to the public, and the alleged violators did not cooperate fully with the investigation.

One pine on the property owned by Avion was cut down, but Avion said it was dead and had a large crack in the trunk.

The agency says an eyewitness has asserted that Avion official Michael Sahlbach was seen either directing or conducting the limb removal.

While Avion continues to assert the firm did not cut the tree limbs, representatives did offer to pay $2,400 as a settlement to avoid legal costs, according to TRPA documentation.

The planning agency has repeatedly levied fines for unpermitted tree removal in the Lake Tahoe Basin, including fines against the South Lake Tahoe Airport and a case that Dollar Point homeowner John Fitzhenry settled for $50,000. The agency alleged that Fitzhenry had drilled holes in three large pine trees and poured poison into the holes to kill the trees, expanding his lake view.

“This isn’t the biggest (case) we’ve dealt with,” said TRPA spokesman Dennis Oliver. “Depending on the number of trees involved, these settlements have gotten up into the six figures.”

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