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Some Ventura County homeowners get ultimatums: Cut trees near their homes, or lose insurance

Lance Orozco
Rick Bisaccia switched insurance carriers after his past company called for all branches to be removed above his home. He trimmed trees, but said they wanted everything removed.

Orders linked to wildfire concerns. Some homeowners comply, others scramble to find new carriers.

It’s a sunny, warm morning in an Ojai neighborhood. We’re in a neighborhood just north of the city’s main business district. The quaint, well kept homes look like they are in the middle of a forest.

But, the trees which make the community so green, and lush are now at the center of a crisis for a number of residents.

Rick Bisaccia is a longtime Ojai resident.

"I received a letter from my insurance company. They were threatening to cancel my homeowner's insurance, which I've had with them for many, many years," said Bisaccia. "They gave me a deadline. They had done an aerial surveillance of the property with a drone. They ascertained I had all these oak trees in close proximity to my house."

"They gave me requirements to trim the trees, which would have meant that basically I would have had to cut down most of my oak trees," said the Ojai man.

Bisaccia is far from alone. A number of Ojai homeowners have received similar notices.

"There are several insurance companies requiring that all the limbs that hang over a building on your property be removed," said Jan Scow, who is an arborist in Ojai.

He says there’s more in the letters some Ojai homeowners are receiving.

"It says the canopies need to be at least 18 feet apart. So, if you can... imaging two trees that are 50 feet apart, and the canopies are touching, and you have to cut those canopies so there's 18 feet of space between them, you're also likely to be doing pretty severe damage to the trees," said Scow.

Fire safety is being cited as the reasoning for the new requirements. In 2017, the massive Thomas Fire virtually encircled the Ojai Valley, but the community came through it largely unscathed.

For fire safety, firefighters expect that there are no branches touching structures, and healthy branches must be at least 10 feet above the roof. The insurance companies are demanding much more.

Scow says they’ve reached out to local legislators for help, but that’s gone nowhere. What’s the plan for his home?

"What I have done is the traditional fire clearance an adequate distance above the building," said Scow. "I've sent pictures to the insurance company, waiting to hear back, but I am quite sure they are going to say 'No, not good enough.' "

 A few blocks away, Bisaccia admits the whole experience was upsetting. He did do some trimming, but that trimming just didn’t include tree trimming. It also included his insurance company.

"I'm simply not going to cut all my trees down," said Bisaccia. "I did trim my oak trees, but I didn't cut my branches. So, what I did is I fired my insurance company, I fired them, which I found some pleasure in. I was able to actually get higher coverage at the same amount (with another company)."
But, for others it isn’t as easy. Some aren’t finding alternative insurance, and for those who do, it can be much more expensive. People who get the notices who have mortgages are in a really tough position. They have to have insurance, or they could face foreclosure. It may leave them with no choice but to cut.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.