OAKLAND -- After 25 years, Phyllis Bishop's battle to reclaim her home's panoramic views from behind a wall of trees may finally come to an end if the Oakland City Council votes to uphold a decision it reached in 2010.
Following nearly a decade of litigation, Bishop -- now 95 -- won the right to clear obstructing trees from her neighbor's property, but must now gain authorization to do the same on a patch of city-owned land in order to completely reclaim her views. Yet even if the city reaffirms its decision, a new condition of approval may have placed that goal out of reach.
Phyllis and her late husband, Lloyd Bishop, bought their home on Wilton Drive in 1964 after a year of searching.
"It was just exactly our house," Phyllis Bishop recalled during a recent interview, citing the property's panoramic views of the San Francisco skyline, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate and Bay bridges as the deciding factor. Over the next 20 years, the Bishops made informal arrangements with their next-door neighbor to trim trees that would otherwise obscure that view. But when Okhoo and Ernest Hanes bought the neighboring property in 1984, Bishop said all that changed.
"Six other (owners) had no objections and suddenly these people do," Bishop said. "There was nothing of great importance that we were asking."
While the Haneses' property is next-door, it sits lower, and the trees growing behind it were directly in front of the Bishops' deck. Two lawsuits and one appeal later, the Haneses had to remove more than 25 acacias, pines and redwoods at their own expense in January. Trees growing on a patch of city-owned land were also identified as obstructing the view, and their pruning and removal was subsequently approved, but now a new condition would make Bishop financially responsible for defending any lawsuits brought against the city as a result of the work.
"Guess who's going to sue the city?" Bishop said.
Bishop's attorney, Barri Bonapart, said the condition was added after permission to cut down the trees was first granted. According to Bonapart, before this, all similar tree cases had used the "hold harmless" provision.
"In essence the city is telling her she can't do it," she said, out of understandable concern that the Haneses will bring further litigation. "They're continuing a vendetta against Mrs. Bishop."
District 4 Councilmember Libby Schaff, however, denies allegations that the provision was added secretly and that its purpose is actually to prevent "passing on the liability to taxpayers" in the event of a lawsuit.
At a Sept. 18 City Council meeting that was shut down due to unrelated protests, city staff would have recommended that the city uphold its earlier decision. Schaff said she believes the council will still vote to do so at its Tuesday meeting, and Bishop and the Haneses said they plan to be present for the decision.
But for Bishop, the last step in reclaiming her views may prove to be a risk she simply cannot take.
"I just happen to be a handy target for people who are trying to display that they are being frugal with the city's money," Bishop said.
Today, neither the Haneses nor Bishop live in the Oakland hills, but retain ownership of the houses. According to court documents, the Haneses lived in their home until 1990 and have rented it out ever since. They now live in Napa. The Bishops relocated to the Piedmont Gardens retirement community in 2009, where Phyllis Bishop continues to reside. Like the Haneses, Bishop rents her house out.
While Bishop vividly recalls welcoming the Haneses to the neighborhood back in 1984, she said she could have never imagined where the request to trim some trees would end up.
When attempts at compromise between the new neighbors failed, the Bishops took the Haneses to court in 2003 but lost because the city's view ordinance was not found to apply to the homes. After the city amended the language to clarify that the ordinance did in fact apply to all Oakland homes, the Bishops sued again and in 2010 won the right to require the Haneses to remove trees from the Haneses' property, who in turn challenged the decision in the Court of Appeals. The decision was upheld on Oct. 27, 2011 -- just two days after Lloyd Bishop died. The Haneses then took the matter to the California Supreme Court, which declined to hear the appeal.
In court, the Haneses argued that removing the trees would take away animal habitats, cause erosion and potentially lead to landslides. But after hearing testimony from experts such as city arboriculture inspector Mitchell Thomson, as well as a soils engineer, a consulting arborist, and the Haneses' own landscape architect, the court determined that the trees in question were non-native, flammable and an invasive species. In addition, the court did not agree that removal posed any significant safety risk.
According to court records, another objection raised by the Haneses was that trees, primarily acacia, on city property were also obscuring the Bishops' view. But when the city granted permission to trim on its property, effectively undercutting that defense, the Haneses appealed that decision as well.
"Spiteful is all it is," said Bishop, who says she does not understand why the Haneses continue the appeals despite no longer living in the area. "My husband died waiting for this to be taken care of. Many people would have thought, 'Oh well, it can't be that important.' But to me it was that important ... It's our whole life savings."
But according to Okhoo Hanes, a retired attorney, things happened very differently and describes the city's recent authorization "an assault on the public and its assets."
While the courts have repeatedly sided with the Bishops, Okhoo Hanes maintains that her former neighbors don't actually have a right to maintain their 1964 views. Hanes claims that serious misconduct was committed in obtaining permission to trim trees on city property, and that granting authorization will damage the city's assets.
"The view ordinance specifies that a private litigation will not bind the city," she said in an email. Hanes also said Thomson and Bonapart colluded in hiring an external contractor to cut down trees on city property that had not previously been deemed a fire hazard -- a $12,000 expense Hanes said was paid by the city.
While it's evident that both parties consider the other to be in the wrong, Bishop and her attorney believe the Haneses are acting purely out of ill will.
"Even after everything they put the Bishops through ... they're still at it. They can't let it go, which is sad and disappointing," Bonapart said. "They've made all these arguments before, and they've lost on all of them."