Fallen branch renews tree fight between neighbors in Del Mar

Torrey pines obscure the ocean view of the Deftos family in Del Mar.
Torrey pines obscure the ocean view of the Deftos family in Del Mar.
(Photo courtesy of Michael Deftos)

Neighbor appeals city’s decision to set up five-year pruning plan


Trees and ocean views can be lovely things, but when they clash there can be trouble.

Tree disputes in Del Mar can mean a trip to the City Council with a consultant, an arborist, photos, maps and lots of paperwork.

The conifers in question are five Torrey Pines owned by Harvey and Sheryl White who live, appropriately, on Ocean View Avenue. Their house, worth $5 million according to Zillow, was built in 2001 and with a plan to preserve the trees growing on their lot at the time.

The Torrey pine is a rare and endangered species of tree that grows only in coastal San Diego County and on Santa Rosa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. It has long gray-green needles in clusters of five and can grow more than 50 feet tall.

To the dismay of some of their neighbors, the hillside trees have continued to grow, obstructing their views of the Pacific Ocean and the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

Discussions with the tree owners were not fruitful, and the owners declined an offer of mediation.

Then two families living behind the Whites filed complaints under the city’s trees, scenic views and sunlight ordinance.

The city’s Planning Commission upheld the neighbors’ complaints, and on Dec. 7, 2021, it appointed a subcommittee to work on a plan to restore the view by carefully trimming the trees’ branches. The owners retained the services of a planning consultant and the certified arborist Mark Wisniewski to work out a solution acceptable to all parties.

The subcommittee worked with the owners to create a five-year plan of periodic pruning to gradually reduce the size of the largest tree by 40 percent and the others by 20 percent. After that, the trees would be cut back every two years in perpetuity. The Planning Commission signed off on the agreement Aug. 9.

However, three days later, a big branch fell off the largest tree. That unexpectedly accelerated the pruning schedule and, apparently, altered the deal.

“The falling of the large branch substantiated our skepticism about the plan,” said Michael Deftos, the appellant, who lives on Torrey Pines Terrace, when the City Council heard his appeal of the approved pruning plan Monday, Sept. 19.

Like many trees, including Southern California’s native oaks, the pine has a habit of “summer branch drop” in which some of the biggest branches may break off unexpectedly, often on warm, calm days. For that reason alone they are a hazard near homes, Deftos said.

The single branch that fell is about 40 percent of the live foliage of the entire tree. Without the limb, the ocean view is not restored, he said, and only the complete removal of the tree would correct the situation.

View restoration must be substantial or the city’s view ordinance is meaningless, Deftos said.

The owners’ consultant, Adam Birnbaum, said much effort went into preserving the large tree, and that it would be unfair for the city to require its removal.

Monday’s hearing was not intended to resolve the issue. Instead, the City Council will bring the matter back for a “de novo” hearing, where the council will decide whether to replace or uphold the Planning Commission’s decision.