(Photo courtesy of Protect the Land)

Asserting a property owner’s general right to build on his or her land, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors has denied appeals by two homeowners in the unincorporated community of Saranap of tree removal permits earlier granted to owners of a neighboring parcel.

Twenty-two trees, most notably two large oaks neighbors wanted preserved for stabilizing a hillside and for their beauty, can come down, with the supervisors’ unanimous rejection on Feb. 25  of the appeal of the county Planning Commission’s recent approval of the tree removal permits.

The residents and their arborists and attorneys had argued that removal of the two largest trees, in particular, would damage the sloped property they’re on, cause drainage problems, hamper neighborhood views and lower property values.

In fact, neighbors said the 2,527-square-foot house planned by Tambri Heyden and David Montalbo was too tall for this neighborhood between the cities of Walnut Creek and Lafayette.

“I have a hard time understanding how my view is going to be improved,” said West Newell Avenue resident Bronwyn Shone, who filed one of two appeals of the county Planning Commission’s earlier approval of the tree removal permit. “How is my property value going to be improved by having an oversized house added to the area?”

Several Saranap neighbors told the supervisors they believe the proposed new house was too big, and that losing the trees — especially the two big oaks — would hamper views and affect trees on their own nearby properties.

Saranap neighbor William Schultz, who with Patricia Mcgregor co-authored the other appeal, said the new house is opposed by the Saranap Homeowners Association and the California Wildlife Foundation.

Oakland resident Mary Thiessen told the supervisors that Heyden and Montalbo were not good neighbors when, several years ago, they built a house above Skyline Boulevard in Oakland.

“I’m here to attest to the harassment, stress and deliberately removing protected plant species, working beyond the scope of their permits, expired permits … yet they stated many times this would be their ‘forever home,’” Thiessen said. “But they never wanted to have friends, or be friendly, with any of us. In fact, it was more like harassment and torture throughout two and a half years.”

In the new house’s defense, Heyden asserted to the supervisors that she and Montalbo installed a hydrant on their property, increasing fire safety in the entire area, and established “bioswales,” groupings of plants that slow and capture rainwater runoff.

But the supervisors ultimately said Heyden and Montalvo have the right to build on their property, and that specific requirements like how or if trees should be removed have already been vetted.

“The reality is that … even if every single issue that was stated is true, that still is not grounds for us to deny someone’s building permit,” said Supervisor Candace Andersen of Danville.

She represents the Saranap area on the board, and said last month she has spent more time doing field work on this one house than on many larger housing projects.

Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond echoed the sentiment that property owners generally have the right to build, and can take reasonable measures to do so.

Gioia said that even in Kensington, the only area of Contra Costa County with a “view ordinance” that gives residents’ visual view area a degree of protection, the ordinance preserves a landowner’s right to build — but with consideration of their neighbors’ views.

“It’s not that the neighbors next to it have a permanent right to look out and enjoy their view, versus a right to build a home,” Gioia said. “A different example, but the same kind of situation.”