Trees vs. Views: We Can Work It Out
The Ark Newspaper, April 13. 2011
By Ann Mizel
Nationally recognized expert in tree and neighbor law, attorney Barri Bonapart, prefers to settle often seemingly intractable neighbor disputes with mediation.
"It's an opportunity for betterment instead of embitterment," Bonapart told The Ark one recent afternoon at her Sausalito firm, Bonapart & Associates. Her license plate reads: PIEC MKR-- for good reason.
In February, Bonapart joined the San Rafael-based Resolution Remedies' alternative dispute resolution (ADR) panel as a mediator and arbitrator and the only tree expert.
"Mediation is near and dear to my heart," said Bonapart. "It's the socially and personally responsible thing to do. "Mediation is the faster, cheaper, better way to go, and there are few cases NOT appropriate for mediation.
"Neighbor disputes can be even worse than family disputes, and sometimes emotions get so hot, things can rapidly escalate into violence," Bonapart stressed. "For some people, negative attention can be better than none at all. With tree disputes there's usually an underlying issue involved like control. If it were just about trees, it would be simple."
Bonapart recalled the case of a Belvedere woman (now deceased) who was " unnaturally attached to the two Redwoods –which she called her 'sentries'--on either side of her driveway, her 'protectors.' When it comes to a person's home or their trees, the 'my home is my castle' mentality can become part of a dispute, Bonapart said.
"Some hillside cities like Belvedere have view ordinances--as does Tiburon--which create view and sunlight rights," said Bonapart, while in Strawberry the view rules are covered by the CC&R's within each subdivision."
"Ideally, when landscaping their property, species selection and placement of trees should be seriously considered, so as not to cause potential annoyance and or danger to yourself or others," said Bonapart, who, while primarily known for mediating tree disputes, also mediates other issues as well.
"My passion is being a peace maker," said the lawyer, who began her career doing complex commercial litigation for large corporations, and got into her "niche specialty" twenty years ago when a family friend's neighbor took down her trees without her permission.
"When I got into the tree issue, I learned it was very complex and interesting, particularly the issue of how one determines how much a tree is worth. I won the case achieving a large recovery for the client, and the consulting arborist on the case began referring other clients to me. Then I began speaking and writing on the subject."
Bonapart explained that while in mediation, mediators do the facilitating, lawyers can still be involved in crafting agreements and other tasks.
Most of Bonapart's cases in Tiburon, Belvedere and Strawberry involve view disputes, although boundary lines, tree debris, damaged property (i.e. cracked driveways or foundations), and personal injury are some other situations that draw prospective clients to Bonapart.
"Most judges are sympathetic to a righteous claim, but I like to talk people out of taking legal action if there is another way to resolve the matter or if the case is not strong and meritorious. Litigation between neighbors really ought to be a last resort."
Bonapart, who has represented both tree owners as well as people adversely impacted by trees, is committed to spreading the word about mediation, where a neutral person, as provided by Resolution Remedies, assists in resolving disputes by helping to identify issues and areas of agreement, and helping parties reach mutually agreeable solutions.
Mediation can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and relatively reasonable fees--compared to litigation-- are generally split equally among parties.
"Remember, problem neighbors are with you morning, noon and night, and litigation can make matters far worse."
Think about that dirty and dangerous Eucalyptus being replaced by a beautiful magnolia. That's the power of mediation.
Reprinted with permission from The Ark Newspaper. © 2011.