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Hedge-a-mony: A legal dispute between two Morro Bay neighbors has led to contempt of court and criminal charges 

Between the Morro Bay backyards belonging to neighbors Carl Grilli and Bob Kraus, there is a row of small trees that have grown into a hedge. As that hedge grew, so did a contentious relationship between the two, which escalated into an entrenched legal battle over the size and height of the trees.

click to enlarge HEDGING THEIR BETS:  The height of a row of myoporum trees that have grown between two Morro Bay neighbors sparked a contentious legal battle, and now, contempt of court and criminal charges against Carl Grilli, who planted the trees in the early 1990s. Grilli’s neighbor, Bob Kraus, whose home is pictured, won a civil suit against Grilli over the height of the hedge. - PHOTO BY JAYMIE SHEARER
  • PHOTO BY JAYMIE SHEARER
  • HEDGING THEIR BETS: The height of a row of myoporum trees that have grown between two Morro Bay neighbors sparked a contentious legal battle, and now, contempt of court and criminal charges against Carl Grilli, who planted the trees in the early 1990s. Grilli’s neighbor, Bob Kraus, whose home is pictured, won a civil suit against Grilli over the height of the hedge.

In the early 1990s, Grilli lined his back fence with Myoporum leatun—bushy trees that are generally called myoporums. The trees grew taller over the years and now stand more than 20 feet tall, to a point where they’re crowding out the ocean view from Kraus’ home, which is located east of the Grilli’s.

Kraus said that even before his view got obstructed, his relationship with Grilli started off on the wrong foot. In 2004, Kraus saw Grilli across the fence line, introduced himself, and suggested that the two neighbors might collaborate to fix the then-saggy fence between their properties. It was the first time the two had spoken since Kraus moved into the house in 1998 (Grilli has lived at his house since 1974). As Kraus recalls, Grilli took issue that their first meeting was initiated because one neighbor wanted something from the other.

That interaction was a foreshadowing of what would come. 

A few years after that initial meeting, Grilli’s myoporums had grown tall enough to become a concern Kraus and two other neighbors. In 2008, Kraus and those neighbors wrote a letter to Grilli, asking him to trim the hedges. Grilli refused. According to a response letter from Grilli that Kraus provided to New Times, Grilli wrote that the previous owner of Kraus’ home had reneged on a promise to pay half of the $6,000 cost to remove seven 65- to 75-foot tall eucalytus trees that the myoporums replaced, and that Grilli would not cooperate on any new matters without a written contract, and a $3,000 reimbursement plus a $500 security deposit. 

“He was really a cantankerous old fool as far as I was concerned, and did not want to play nice with the neighbors,” Kraus said.

Grilli didn’t recall this conversation between him and Kraus.

Meanwhile, the myoporums kept growing, and the feud began in earnest.

Kraus asked a Morro Bay building inspector to take action on the issue because the trees violated city height limits for shrubs, but the inspector said it was a civil matter.

At one point, around Christmastime in 2009, Grilli accused Kraus of reaching over the fence with a chain saw and cutting away at the trees and called the police. Kraus admitted to cutting the branches, but said that it was only within the boundary of his fence line using a small, electric chainsaw that’s usually mounted at the end of a pole.

In 2010 Kraus again contacted Morro Bay’s then-Mayor Janice Peters. Then-City Attorney Rob Schultz responded, again telling Kraus that the issue was a civil matter, and the city would not get involved.

According to court records, Schultz determined that the myoporums were trees, not shrubs, and therefore not subject to the city’s municipal code’s 6-foot-6-inch height limit. 

“The city has concluded that the Grillis’ trees are just that—trees. Morro Bay has no ordinance governing tree height or size for the purpose of preserving private views,” Schultz wrote in a declaration. “Even if the Grillis’ trees constitute a hedge under the Morro Bay municipal code, which they do not, the code provisions governing hedges are intended to protect the public safety, not views, and are enforced only to that end.”

Kraus and Grilli both consulted lawyers, who wrote letters back and forth to each other, until Grilli took Kraus to small claims court in July 2011. Kraus responded by filing a civil case against Grilli, telling New Times that he had Grilli served on the day of the small claims court hearing.

Eventually, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall wrote in a Dec. 26, 2013, ruling Grilli must begin reducing the trees’ height.

Crandall’s ruling determined that while the myoporums were trees—as Morro Bay’s Schultz had previously told Kraus—the plants were still subject to the city’s municipal code, as they were clearly put in place by the Grillis for the purpose of creating a barrier between their property and their neighbor’s.

“Plainly, a ‘hedge’ can be comprised of trees, plants, or shrubs so long as it serves as a physical barrier between properties, and the municipal code draws no distinction between ‘trees,’ ‘plants,’ or ‘shrubs,’ for purposes of its ordinance,” Crandall wrote in the ruling.

Following that ruling, Grilli has yet to trim the trees. Grilli and his attorney, Peter Van Zandt, maintain that the trees are exempt from the code, and have also become an important habitat area for wildlife. In addition, Grilli claimed that removing the trees would require a permit from the city, which Morro Bay Community Development Director Scot Graham said was not true in an Oct. 16 letter to Van Zandt.

Now, Grilli is facing contempt charges for ignoring Judge Crandall’s ruling. The city of Morro Bay has also changed its position on the trees. After asking Grilli to comply with the municipal code, including a final warning in a June 11 letter, the city filed criminal charges against Grilli. He is slated to be arraigned in court on those charges Nov. 9.

While Grilli has no shortage of issues with how this saga has played out thus far, he particularly takes issue with the city filing criminal charges after previously supporting him.

“This whole trial, this whole case, is a civil case,” Grilli told New Times in a September interview at his home. “Now the city is taking us to a criminal case.”

Morro Bay City Attorney Joe Pannone told New Times that the city has changed its stance on the matter because Crandall’s ruling determined the trees were in fact hedges under the municipal code. Pannone said that the city’s goal in filing criminal charges is to resolve the issue.

“The city’s intent is not to prosecute it; the city’s intent is to have the hedges fixed,” Pannone said.

The Morro Bay City Council considered this matter in a special closed session meeting on Oct. 27, but it had nothing to report in the public hearing.

The Grillis are also due back in court on Nov. 23 for a contempt of court hearing.

That hearing follows the original court order for Grilli to cut his trees back 5 feet a year, until they reached the 6-foot-6-inch limit. Even though those orders came from a Superior Court Judge, Grilli says he can’t abide, because doing so would kill the trees.

In a brief filed in Grilli’s defense, Van Zandt cited the opinion of an arborist, saying that cutting the trees “would be a death sentence to the trees and not an approved arboricultural practice at this stage in the trees’ lives.”

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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