$1,000 fine cut in Takoma Park tree case

By Jeremy Arias
The Gazette
Thursday, November 26, 2009

Famed American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn." For Takoma Park residents S. Craig Alexander and Amy Wasserstrom, a single tree led to a $1,000 citation after a brush with the city's arborist in August.

Takoma Park, which prides itself on its leafy canopy, has strict rules about protecting its trees. Arborist Todd Bolton roams the community looking for violations, but Alexander and Wasserstrom say they think he spoke for the trees a little too forcefully in their case.

They appealed their citation in District Court in Silver Spring last Tuesday, and Judge Stephen P. Johnson lowered the fine to $250, plus $7.50 in court fees. The judge also determined that Bolton had cause to issue the citation from what the arborist had seen on the couple's property.

Their tree trouble started Aug. 5, when they were installing a flagstone path outside their home on Tresscott Avenue. As Alexander and Wasserstrom were setting the stones in their yard, Bolton suddenly appeared at their door, the couple told the court.

Approaching Wasserstrom from the front steps to the house, Bolton made his assessment of the path's proximity to the tree, Wasserstrom said.

"He pointed at the [flagstones] and he said, 'The tree doesn't like that,' " Wasserstrom said in District Court during the couple's appeal. "We said, 'Who are you?' "

Bolton was asked to leave, but he returned the next day, walked into the couple's back yard to take pictures and asserted that he did not need a warrant when he was asked to leave once more, according to Alexander and Assistant City Attorney Linda Perlman, who represented Takoma Park in the proceeding.

"He was told to leave and probably shouldn't have been on the property on August 6th," Perlman said in court. She also argued against Alexander's trespass claims and arguments about the city code's vague language, and said Bolton saw enough to warrant the citation during his first visit.

"He walked up the front stairs -- the same way a mailman would have walked up -- went over to the homeowners and observed the activity that they were doing at the time," Perlman said, describing the city's version of what transpired Aug. 5. "It clearly does appear to be a violation."

The city code states that residents who intend to add or subtract three inches of soil or cover -- or, in Alexander and Wasserstrom's case, gravel -- to a 25-square-foot area within 50 feet of an urban forest tree must request a tree-impact assessment. An urban forest tree must be at least 24 inches in circumference at a height of four feet from the ground, the code says.

"I observed, from the top level of the steps next to the evergreen, there was evidence of a large amount of regrade very close to an urban forest tree," Bolton told the judge. He said adding or subtracting "grade," or layers of soil over a tree's roots, could smother or weaken the tree's hold and kill it. A majority of trees that fall in the city topple because of root failure, he said.

Bolton said he would not comment on the case.

Takoma Park Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite praised Bolton's work history with the department, saying complaints are a part of the process when citations are involved.

"He's very professional; he's very technically qualified; and he applies the law fairly and evenly across the community," she said.

"Todd has an obligation to make sure the laws are being followed," Braithwaite said. "People have the right to appeal.

"Anytime you have to enforce codes, you don't win a lot of friends."

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