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

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; B01

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."

At the very least, he said, a lot of people love their trees -- until the power goes out.

More than just shade

At a time when trees are seen as a critical ally in the fight against global warming, the number of communities in the Arbor Day Foundation's Tree City USA program continues to grow. In 1976, 42 communities were in the program; in 2008, there were 3,402, including Washington and its suburbs.

"There is solid research behind a whole slew of benefits of trees," Frances E. Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in an e-mail.

Besides cleansing the air and managing storm water runoff, trees fight global warming by converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. Research at a public housing complex in Chicago also found that people whose apartments looked out only on concrete and other apartments reported higher levels of violence and aggression than people who could see green. The Arbor Day Foundation Web site even offers a Tree Value Calculator that can tell you to the penny how much that pignut hickory in your back yard is worth in terms of property values and carbon dioxide consumption.

Trees have long been valued in the nation's capital, which has styled itself as the City of Trees almost since the days when Thomas Jefferson envisioned lining the route from Capitol Hill to the White House with Lombardy poplars. Washington ranks fourth in tree coverage (about 31 percent) after Charlotte (46 percent), Portland, Ore. (42 percent), and Atlanta (32.9 percent), a Pepco spokesman said, citing a consultant's findings.

The District of Columbia requires permits to remove any tree on private property that is bigger than 55 inches around. Fairfax County does not prohibit people from cutting down trees unless more than 2,500 square feet of land is disturbed. Montgomery County imposes no tree-cutting restrictions on property of about an acre or less, but some of its cities, towns and villages do. Chevy Chase, for example, requires a permit to remove any tree whose trunk is more than 24 inches around.

Little wonder that chainsaw massacres here can rile neighbors, especially when the timbering is the work of a celebrity. Some still think of Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder as a renegade lumberjack for sawing down more than a hundred trees on his Potomac estate in 2004, despite having received the federal government's approval.

Last month, Potomac River aficionados were distressed to find about 465 new stumps on the shoreline of the Trump National Golf Club Washington DC. The Trump Organization expressed regret but said the trees had to go to prevent erosion on its 800-acre playland, which was bought last year by real estate mogul Donald Trump.

Fair-weather friends?

But Washington's affection for trees has also been tested by the run of storms that began July 25. Pepco, which supplies electricity in Maryland and the District, said more than 90 percent of power outages were caused by downed trees, and that 75 percent of the trees were on private property. In the aftermath, Pepco chief executive Joseph M. Rigby reminded consumers that the power saw is a key tool in maintaining the power grid, while some people in stricken neighborhoods wondered aloud whether trees have been coddled.

"We do encounter situations where people said, 'Just take everything off it and leave me a 10-foot or 20-foot stump,' " said Sony Bartholomew, co-owner of Bartholomew Tree Service in Kensington.

Her crews have heard it all from people whose fondness for trees has limits. They want trees removed because they don't want branches touching the roof. They don't want leaves in the gutters. They don't want acorns in their driveways, patios or swimming pools. They don't want nesting birds soiling their cars. Or, they just want more light. They want more grass. They want nothing to interfere with the TV satellite dish.

"Sometimes we find it ridiculous," Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew said the craziest request the company ever received -- and one the tree service declined -- came from a woman who was mad at her husband and wanted to chop down a tree that he loved. Just because he loved it.

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