The Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office has filed vandalism charges against a local environmentalist who has been active in efforts to preserve local wetlands, alleging that he destroyed the habitat of endangered species in the Ballona Wetlands.
Robert Jan van de Hoek, 50, of Playa del Rey, was charged Thursday, August 3rd, with two counts of cutting down myoporum shrubs and one count of cutting down a ficus tree, city attorney officials said.
He was also charged with three counts of violating sections of the Los Angeles Municipal Code prohibiting the cutting or injuring of any plant life without permission from the city Department of Recreation and Parks.
City attorney officials said the charges stem from two separate incidents in August last year and one incident in March this year, in which residents and park officials observed van de Hoek allegedly cut off branches of vegetation in the Ballona Wetlands using large pruning shears.
The vegetation that was allegedly “destroyed” is known to be the home of several rare and endangered bird species, city attorney officials said.
Van de Hoek, a wildlife biologist who has strongly supported efforts to preserve the Ballona Wetlands, said he was “shocked” to hear of the vandalism charges against him, calling them “false and misleading.”
“Everyone who knows me knows that I would never harm wetlands,” van de Hoek said. “I’m on record everywhere defending wetlands.”
Van de Hoek is co-director of the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey, an organization that works to preserve land in the Ballona Valley for educational, recreational and open space opportunities.
He also leads Ballona Creek bicycle nature rides each month from Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey, teaching riders about the natural history and ecology of the Ballona Creek.
Van de Hoek said he believes that the charges from the city attorney are “politically motivated,” but city attorney spokesman Frank Mateljan denied that politics were considered in filing the charges.
“We were presented with the case and we felt that the evidence warranted filing charges,” Mateljan said.
Mateljan said a thorough investigation of the incidents was conducted by the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the Department of General Services, the city Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Sanitation and the California Department of Fish and Game.
The investigation was forwarded to the city attorney’s criminal and special litigation branch for prosecution.
Regarding the alleged vandalism incidents, van de Hoek denied ever cutting down a ficus tree.
The estimated cost to replace a ficus tree is $15,000, Mateljan said.
But van de Hoek said he legally cut down myoporum shrubs because he has permission from the state Department of Fish and Game and California Coastal Commission to remove such “invasive plants” that hurt endangered species.
Myoporum shrubs are poisonous plants from New Zealand that hurt wetlands and can kill birds that live there, van de Hoek said.
“It helps endangered species when myoporum are removed,” he said.
Each count of vandalism for cutting down a myoporum shrub carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, city attorney officials said.
The vandalism charge for cutting down a ficus tree, valued at over $15,000, carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a $10,000 fine.
Each violation of the Los Angeles Municipal Code for cutting plants without permission carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
Van de Hoek is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, August 30th, at the county Superior Court Airport Courthouse.