D.C. area's love-hate relationship with trees can split neighbors

Severe thunderstorms felled trees and power lines across much of the Washington area Sunday afternoon, killing Four people and leaving hundreds of thousands without power.
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Amer Ghalayini cut down nearly half an acre of trees a few weeks ago to build a backyard soccer pitch for his children. His neighbors in Fairfax Station pitched a fit.

Outraged at the destruction of so many leafy giants near their homes, neighbors called Fairfax County's code enforcers. Now Ghalayini faces two notices of violation for allegedly clearing more than 2,500 square feet of land without a permit and in a specially protected area of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

"It just makes me sick," neighbor Cindy Stafford said, pointing out where bulldozers had transformed the forest behind her house into a rectangle of mud. Stafford, who moved here from Texas, said she and her husband prize the trees in their suburb. "This is like fairyland compared with Texas. And then to have somebody who obviously hates trees . . ."

Ghalayini, who is a Subway restaurant franchisee, did not return repeated messages left at his home and business. The county hopes to obtain Ghalayini's cooperation in restoring the property, spokesman Brian Worthy said. If not, the county could seek civil or criminal sanctions, including fines of as much as $5,000 a day or up to a year in jail, Worthy said.

The skirmish over Fairfax Station's greenery is part of the perennial clash between tree huggers and tree cutters. But the conflict also flared across the region this summer when foul weather crashed entire trees into the power grid, darkening homes. The aftermath reminded people of the passionately splintered attitudes that urban dwellers have toward the leafy beings that grace their streets and cul-de-sacs.

On one side are those who would face off against bulldozers to protect a grove of trees -- as occurred in an Earth Day-era protest at Scotts Run commemorated last year.

On the other are people like Kyra Gebhard, who would perhaps like to drive the bulldozer. She hates -- just hates -- her neighbor's ginkgo.

"It's smelly, and it's messy, and it's big, and it dumps dead leaves in my yard," Gebhard, 33, said.

And that's just the tree.

"Sometimes we have a yard full of berries that smell like feces and vomit mixed into one," said Gebhard, a Capitol Hill resident who contributes to The Hill is Home. "I mean, I really hate the tree. I've actually thought of hitting it with my car, but I like my car too much."

People's love-hate for trees even seems to change with the seasons, said John Thomas, associate director of the District's Urban Forestry Administration. Spring is generally a hopeful time, when people call for plantings, Thomas said. But by autumn, as the dead leaves pile up, people demand the axe.

"We get a lot of people who say, 'If I have to rake these [expletive] leaves one more time, I'm going to cut this tree down,' " Thomas said. "It's weird how the tree becomes our friend or not our friend."

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