Mike was upset when he heard that four gingko trees on the corner of a lot he can see from his Setagaya Ward house in Tokyo were to be cut down. A developer is to build six cookie-cutter homes on the 600-sq.-meter plot.

As he lives in one of 25 areas of Tokyo designated under the Metropolitan Scenic Area Ordinance, Mike (who asked for his surname not to be published), was disheartened to learn that while there are limits on what developers can build, those limits are often relaxed. Concerned, he called his ward office -- where an official told him there was "nothing they could do." Then he called The Japan Times.

"It seems to me there should be a regulation, or that if the ward office wanted to try harder to save these old trees they could do something," he said.

Setagaya's verdant areas have plummeted from more than 33 percent of the ward's area in 1973, to a little over 20 percent in 1997. At the current pace, they will be down to 16.8 percent by 2010.

"This is really a big headache for us," said Akio Hasegawa of the ward's Regional Community Development Division. "When owners of large parcels of land can no longer maintain the property or have to sell it and a developer buys it, it is very difficult."

Under the metropolitan government's scenic area ordinance, building regulations cover the height, distance from neighbors and building area. However, the specter of a developer's lawsuit claiming damages over their ownership rights often leads to trade-offs.

A case in point lies just a few minutes' stroll from the ginkgo trees.

There, a 7,319-sq.-meter plot of land where there used to be a Japanese garden, and a guest house has been leveled for a 79-unit apartment complex to be built by Mitsui Real Estate.

"We fought the plan for a year, but there was nothing more we could do," said Yuriko Kadowaki, a local resident for more than two decades.