Developer Fined After Tall Old Oak Is Sheared in Half

By Paul Schwartzman, page B1
Washington, DC (October 22, 2007)- In the category of the egregious no-no, cutting down a single oak tree might not seem like a big deal. But in Washington, sometimes called the City of Trees, oaks, maples and their kin hold an almost exalted status. Certainly more exalted, at least for the moment, than Macy Development, which has acknowledged killing a 65-foot-tall oak on 15th Street SE this month. The penalty: a $15,000 fine, the largest the District has ever handed out for the killing of a tree on public property.

“This is an offense that the District Department of Transportation takes very seriously,” said Erik Linden, a spokesman for the agency, which issued the summons last week. The city’s arborists, he said, described the tree as a “beautiful pin oak,” with a 40-foot canopy. It was planted 50 to 60 years ago, and its sheared remains — all of 35 feet — stand outside the site where Macy is building a four-story condominium complex.
A neighbor saw a construction worker cutting the tree’s branches Oct. 8 and alerted the District. A Transportation Department arborist arrived soon after and found the worker turning the oak into something resembling a totem pole.
“A pole with raw circles where the branches used to be,” said Jim Myers, who moderates a neighborhood Internet site where residents have groused about the lost tree. “Condos vs. Trees” was the headline Myers chose for his comments. A $15,000 fine might seem sizable at first blush, but Myers considers it the equivalent of a “parking ticket” for a real estate developer. “Given the damage to the environment of the street and the character, $150,000 wouldn’t be enough,” he said.
The tree is in front of one of two condominium apartments Macy is building in the 200 block of 15th Street SE.
Bharath Kort, a Macy principal, said a worker was supposed to cut a branch that was making contact with a window. Instead, Kort said, the worker “cut all the branches.” The damage is particularly galling, Kort said, because Macy is trying “to change the neighborhood” with new housing. “It was a ghastly mistake,” he said. “We’re very sorry. We apologize. Whatever keeps the neighborhood happy, we will do. Whatever they say.” He said the worker has been fired.
The District’s reputation as a tree-friendly town extends to the founding of the capital, when Thomas Jefferson sketched out sites for plantings of Lombardy poplars along Pennsylvania Avenue. “It pained him to see trees cut down during his presidency,” said Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author of “City of Trees.” Jefferson, she said, once remarked that “the unnecessary felling of a tree seems to me a crime little short of murder.”
In the 19th century, after Alexander “Boss” Shepherd oversaw the planting of 60,000 trees, Harper’s Magazine wrote that the District’s lush greenery helped make it the world’s most beautiful city.
The District maintains 144,000 street trees. Under the city’s Urban Forest Preservation Act, which sets $15,000 as the maximum fine, it is illegal for people to “willfully top, cut down, remove, girdle, break, wound, destroy, or in any manner injure any vine, bush, shrub or tree” that they do not own. The Transportation Department is requiring that the developer pay for the removal of the tree.
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