Up a Tree In Takoma Park - Disputes Over City's Tough Restrictions Test the Timber of Its Arborist

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer

Saturday, July 19, 2003; Page C01

"Mister," he said with a sawdusty sneeze, "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.

I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues."

-- "The Lorax" (1971), by Dr. Seuss

Last March, Ken Shields decided to cut down some trees.

For one thing, the roots of his catalpa were ripping up the driveway. Worse, the tall, big-leafed tree blocked a view of the street when he and family members -- including his 76-year-old mother-in-law -- backed their cars out.

Then there was the messy mulberry out back and a questionable Japanese maple.

So Shields called the city arborist, which is what you do in Takoma Park before touching a tree, even if it's on your property. The snug enclave just outside the District in Maryland boasts many a progressive tree-lover among its 20,000 inhabitants.

In fact, Shields and his wife, Elizabeth Thurlow-Shields, are among them. "I love the trees, I love living in Takoma Park," the 20-year resident says. "My wife is a woodswoman and appreciates and adores trees."

But their walk through the wilds of the town's tree ordinance -- one of the most restrictive in the nation -- turned into a journey that took Ken and Betsy from pleased wonderment to sober-minded amazement and, finally, all the way to the Land of Flabbergasted Rage.

When the arborist -- a tall, bearded fellow named Brett Linkletter -- first dropped by to chat with Ken about the trees, the homeowner, who'd recently moved to this larger house from another nearby, was delighted.

Linkletter gently talked him out of applying to take down the Japanese maple -- quietly exercising the arborist's official power to refuse to let a citizen remove a tree -- but allowed him to apply for "Tree Removal Permits" for the catalpa and the mulberry.

A few days later, on March 26, Linkletter sent the Shieldses a letter granting "preliminary permit approval for you to remove the 18-inch diameter at breast height (dbh) catalpa tree located at the front right, and the 6-inch dbh mulberry located in the back."

So strict is the tree law that permits were required even though mulberries are widely considered "junk trees" and catalpas not as desirable as, say, oaks or maples. "Limited value in the residential landscape" is the verdict on catalpas in Michael A. Dirr's "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," the professional's bible.

So Ken and Betsy filed the applications along with a $25 fee for each tree and signed an affidavit promising that, if the permits were received, they would either plant young replacement trees (in the case of the catalpa, in a better location) or contribute $257 per removed tree -- a total of $514 -- to the city's "urban forest" fund.

Then they waited.

Their applications to Linkletter were posted in front of their house, as well as at City Hall. For 15 days, any Takoma Park resident could file a protest, triggering a hearing before the town's five-member Tree Commission -- a time-consuming process involving sworn testimony, official exhibits and a ponderously written "Decision and Order."

Just before the 15-day window closed, someone protested on behalf of the catalpa.

"I walk past this tree every day," wrote citizen David Blockstein. "This tree adds significantly to the diversity of tree species in Takoma Park, and its beautiful flowers and unusual long pods attract the interest and pleasure of people walking by along the sidewalk. It also provides habitat for wildlife -- presently there is a squirrel nest in the tree.

"I urge you to deny the permit."

Under his signature, Blockstein characterized himself as "(the Lorax)" -- a reference to the tree-saving troll in Dr. Seuss's '60s-era ecological children's book.

The Supreme Court of Trees

The Tree Commission hearing on the catalpa took place May 13 in the city auditorium with a formality appropriate to serious judicial review.

The five commissioners, unpaid citizen volunteers, sat on one side of a big conference table. Facing them was arborist Linkletter, flanked by Ken Shields ("Applicant") and Blockstein ("City resident"). A deputy city attorney sat at one end, an official recorder at the other.

After witnesses were duly sworn, and exhibits received (letters, applications, the arborist's "tree rating sheets"), Linkletter, 42, summarized the case. "In a physiological sense," he testified, "the tree is pretty healthy. For whatever reason, it seems to enjoy the location. But I do see a conflict with the hardscape [the driveway pavement]." He also mentioned the visual impairment for drivers.

"So I allowed it to go through the permit process."

Blockstein, a 47-year-old ecologist and conservation biologist who works for an environmental nonprofit, was next. "It's wonderful to live in a city that takes its urban forest so seriously," he said, going on to rhapsodize about the catalpa's buds and "very striking" pods.

Shields, 48, a mild-mannered trade association executive, also rhapsodized. "The urban forest, that's why we moved here. . . . We're very sensitive."

But the catalpa, he said, needed to go.

Then Chairman John Hartmann, 52, a professional gardener, ordered the witnesses and public (including a journalist) out so the commission could deliberate "in camera." The secret deliberation lasted 40 minutes.

Privately, Linkletter predicted: "They'll let him take it down. . . . The opposition needed a more tangible, concrete reason. . . . But I've been wrong before."

He was wrong this time, too.

In its six-page Decision and Order of May 22, the commission decreed that the catalpa remain standing. "The Commission takes judicial notice of the catalpa species' large leaves and pleasant fragrance," the decision says, "and notes the attractive flowers and long seed pods [and] finds that the catalpa is a desirable part of the City's urban forest."

What about driver safety?

"The Commission does not find the Applicant's testimony on that point to be credible."

"I was dumbfounded," says Betsy. "I thought I would be able to deal with their saying no, and I am dealing with it. But what I'm not dealing with is how angry this whole process is making me.

"I'm totally burned out from talking about it and thinking about it."

Merritt Thurlow, Betsy's elderly mother, says she's scared to back out of the driveway because the catalpa blocks her view.

Ken also struggled to control his emotions. "The more I thought about it the more it made my blood boil. . . . We hire an arborist, we pay him to make decisions about the trees, and [he] has to acquiesce to a Tree Commission -- he can't have the authority to decide if a tree comes down or not!"

Blockstein, the victorious Lorax, says he "frankly was surprised by the formality and outcome" of the process. "The situation that I put myself into certainly was very weird," and he thinks Ken and Betsy were "very nice about it."

"We joke about 'The Peoples' Republic of Takoma Park,' " he adds, "but there is at least a communal, if not communitarian, aspect if one chooses to live here. . . . That's what makes Takoma Park a special place."

Any qualms about the alleged danger to drivers posed by the catalpa?

"No, because if people are careful . . . one can adapt."

The Politburo Meets

When the Takoma Park Council met Monday night to consider a rewrite of the tree ordinance, the Shieldses were on a camping trip and couldn't be there. But Ken sent an e-mail to Mayor Cathy Porter:

"The system that currently exists is absurd, ridiculous, and a mismanagement of tax dollars. [It] encourages citizen dissent, distrust, and is a mockery of everything Takoma Park represents."

The meeting was heated, as some citizens testified to frustration with the cumbersome tree law (more than 20 single-spaced typewritten pages of legalese), while others voiced concern that the rewrite could gut the law and, over time, diminish the city's prized canopy of old-growth trees, many of them more than 100 years old.

As usual, arborist Linkletter found himself in the middle.

"The arborist should have sole authority," testified citizen Mary Anne Leary. "We shouldn't be dillydallying over what is potentially a very dangerous tree in your back yard." Her own experience of not being able legally to chop down a huge oak immediately after Linkletter told her it was actually -- but not legally -- "hazardous" left her "appalled. I was flabbergasted."

Hazardous or not, Linkletter had explained, the tree didn't seem in imminent danger of toppling -- meaning within 48 hours -- and therefore under the current law Leary had to go through the permit process before it could be taken down.

If it could be taken down.

In the end, she testified, she was relieved to learn that the oak was actually in a public right-of-way on Piney Branch Road. A few weeks ago, the state sent in crews and took it down.

In some of the most dramatic testimony that night, citizen Elise Ambrose told of a big "hazardous tree" at that very moment leaning over an apartment building she was supervising.

"If this tree does fall," she testified, "people will die."

The arborist, she continued, had agreed it was hazardous but explained that it had to go through the permit process anyway. Her application to take down the tree was still in the 15-day waiting period.

Any citizen could protest, dragging things on for months. (By Thursday, Ambrose said later by phone, the waiting period had expired without protest and the tree had been taken down.)

The city's potential liability in such situations, council member Bruce Williams said Monday night, was one reason for reworking the law. Yet no one among a score of officials and citizens interviewed for this story could recall a tree killing anyone or doing serious damage in the city since the tree ordinance went into effect in the early 1980s.

Citizen Paul Chrostowski, an environmental scientist and a member of the city's Committee on the Environment, testified that the law has bred "confusion" but that any decision on changing it should await completion of a long-term "tree management plan" being developed by the arborist and other city officials.

Catherine Tunis, who heads the Committee on the Environment and who has a master's degree in forestry, complained in her testimony that data she's requested from the city -- how many tree removal requests come in, how many are approved, denied, etc. -- hasn't been forthcoming.

"We have heard that the City Manager and arborist have interpreted the current law as requiring them to issue a preliminary approval for anyone who requests one and meets the administrative requirements," she added in written testimony. "This was never the intent of the law. The purpose of the law is to protect the trees."

Any rewrite, she continued, should not curtail citizen appeals, because they "are the only thing that are protecting our trees." Nor should the definition of a hazardous tree be eased, in her view, because that would just make it easier to take down trees.

No one raised the question of whether it's constitutional for the city to prohibit citizens from cutting trees on their own land. Susan Silber, the city attorney, said in a separate interview that it's constitutional because the Maryland Constitution gives municipalities "what's called 'police power' to legislate to protect health, safety and welfare."

There is, she said, "a public interest to maintaining the tree cover of the urban forest."

Under the surface Monday night -- inchoate yet palpable as a drumbeat in the distant woods -- was a question about what's really important: trees, or people?

Council member Marc Elrich had finally put it this way: "I want to trust the arborist. I would like some common sense. . . . We haven't shown the passionate concern for how human beings are taken care of that we show for the urban forest."

Patrolling the Urban Woods

"Sometimes people scream at me that someone's taking down a tree," muses the arborist, sitting in his small office near City Hall. "Other times they scream at me because they're not allowed to take a tree down.

"I'm caught in the middle."

Besides handling tree removal requests and helping rewrite the ordinance, the job includes providing tree counseling for citizens who request it, developing "tree protection plans" for any construction in the city and devising a long-term tree management plan so trees that die or are removed will be replaced over time.

Forestry and urban forestry are different, Linkletter notes.

"In urban forestry you need to accept that there's a lot of people and hardscape around, a lot of negative factors affecting the trees. We try to work within these parameters. . . . You have disturbed soils, much higher compaction than in the forest, less organic matter. Turf can cause problems, because if . . . it rains, the yard turf soaks it up."

Trees need huge amounts of water, he adds -- a fact often overlooked by homeowners.

"The buildings and pavement build up heat, too, and the trees can't get out of the sun. They can't just go inside the drugstore and get a soda pop."

The hazard problem is paramount in urban forestry, Linkletter adds.

"When we're preventing people from taking down hazardous trees, we're just setting ourselves up" for possible liability problems, he says. "Once people realize their tree is hazardous, especially if they have kids, they're in fear. That's a quality-of-life issue."

Now, he thinks, the ordinance is too strict about taking down trees and "doesn't represent the majority of people in town."

Linkletter was born in Red Oak, Iowa, the first of two sons of a telephone company employee and a schoolteacher. "As a kid I loved to climb trees," he recalls. "I knew every tree within a couple of blocks. I knew which were tough or easy . . . to climb.

"It's fun to be in a tree. There's something serene about it, and it gives you a neat perspective on things."

His father liked trees, too, and would talk of them with little Brett while the two tended to the father's beekeeping hobby.

"I've always been really interested in insects, too," Linkletter says. "It's fun to observe them. Insects and trees have a pretty close relationship. Trees are like insect towns, there are insects crawling all over trees."

In college Linkletter studied history, then held a series of unsatisfying office jobs before the trees called to him. He returned to college at the University of Minnesota to study urban forestry. He was a state-licensed arborist for a private tree-care firm before taking the Takoma Park job two years ago.

Despite the swirl of arboreal politics, Linkletter still loves the job because every day he gets out of the office to spend time with citizens and their trees.

"It's so sad," says citizen Diana Wells, watching Linkletter one day as he examines the ailing apricot tree in her front yard. She's cradling her infant son, Tobias, in her arms.

"It's abiotic," Linkletter observes, crouching to inspect the lower trunk of the small tree, which has pink blooms on one side and bare dead limbs on the other.

"This tree has been girdled with wire or rope," the arborist concludes. "When trees are girdled, they live but the wire restricts them and finally has an effect."

"Wow, that's amazing!" says Wells. She'd had two commercial landscapers look at the tree, but they could tell her nothing.

"Two years ago the fruit got all crinkly and leaky," she says, "and the leaves got all ruffly."

"They're not getting the nutrients they need," Linkletter explains. "The uptake [of water] is not occurring. Nothing can be done. It's past help. In some girdling situations you can do something, but it's way too far along."

He hands her a tree removal application.

"Can I fill this out right now?" she asks.

She hands Tobias over to Linkletter and begins filling out the application on the porch rail while at the same time asking about replacement trees.

"It's fun having a fruit tree," Linkletter says. "I've got pear and apricot, plus blueberries and raspberries. My daughter likes to pick them."

He's rocking Tobias in his arms.

Ex Parte Chop

Citizen Ken Shields, struggling with the after-burn of his experience:

Fantasized about having a catalpa float in Takoma Park's Fourth of July parade, on which he would ride carrying a chain saw and naked with only catalpa leaves covering certain parts of his anatomy.

Fantasized about whacking the catalpa down illegally and paying a possible $1,500 fine for a criminal misdemeanor.

Fantasized about having a "Cut the Catalpa Concert" in his yard and charging $5 a head to cover the fine.

But no. He would not stoop to such "infantilism."

Still, the experience rankles. It's hard not to think petty thoughts.

About Hartmann, for instance, the Tree Commission chairman. Shields happens to know he collects old cars.

"Antique cars, parked on the street, and some of them are junky, eyesores. . . . How's that contribute to the urban forest?"

Indeed, Hartmann, a jovial type, arrives for a tree hearing at City Hall one night driving a ratty '63 Olds Cutlass convertible, its engine gurgling like a tugboat pulling into the dock at Havana in 1938.

Yes, he has a "collection of old cars, all duly licensed and insured." As for Shields's criticism, Hartmann isn't above a few petty thoughts of his own.

"I'd like to speed by his house," he declares with a chuckle, "and leave him in a cloud of unburned hydrocarbons!"

Maybe he could pull Shields's float.


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