The owner of a Georgetown mansion once owned by former first lady Jackie Kennedy was labeled a “tree killer” in a Halloween display after neighbors complained some of the property’s premier timber recently disappeared.
But the home’s new owner says he has spent a significant amount of money caring for and cutting down already-damaged trees — with each move approved by the city. District officials, meanwhile, are mulling fines because they say excessive pruning left one tree dead and another in poor health.
David Hudgens, founder and CEO of concrete company Accu-Crete, purchased the residence at 3017 N St. NW last year for $6.5 million. Kennedy briefly lived there after her husband’s assassination, and the home was later owned for decades by socialite Yolande Betbeze Fox.
Neighbors say the trees began to disappear soon after Hudgens, who owns two other houses on the street and lives next door, bought the home. In January, the city removed three trees in treeboxes along the street, then last month he cut down a magnolia on his property and trimmed branches off another.
“Rather than remove them directly, he cut off all of the branches,” said Micheline Klagsbrun, who lives down the block. “They just look horrible . . . It just killed them slowly.”
Seeing an opportunity to call attention to the trees’ demise on Halloween, Klagsburn erected a skeleton holding an ax in a treebox. The skeleton was next to a sign with an arrow that said “Tree Killer Lives There.” Another sign said “Save our trees,” and a faux tombstone said, “Beloved magnolia 1840-2018 destroyed R.I.P.”
Hudgens countered the criticism, saying he is “very tired of the whole squabble.” He said he helped care for Fox, his neighbor, in her final days and helped care for the trees at his own expense in the last decade of her life.
Still, Hudgens said, when he bought the property, damage done by unchecked root growth was extensive and retaining walls along the front of the property were crumbling. Hudgens estimated he spent $150,000 on landscaping, tree removal and repairs.
“I’ve done nothing with these trees without the advice of multiple arborists,” he said. “I’ve cut no tree down without the authority of the city.”
The confrontational Halloween display comes as some in Georgetown seek answers from the city’s Urban Forestry Division — part of the District Department of Transportation — and other city officials about how Hudgens had the trees removed with the city’s blessing.
Klagsbrun shared a Jan. 18 email response she received from Jack A. Chapman, supervisory urban forester for DDOT, that said three trees in treeboxes along the street were taken down. A mature zelkova and a Norway maple were removed because of wind damage, and a red maple was removed because it had not grown to the expected size, the email said.
The reasoning is “total nonsense,” Klagsbrun said. “Hundreds of trees in Georgetown are in worse shape.”
Hudgens fired back, saying he was not responsible for those trees, which were removed by the city.
“Those trees along the street were the city’s trees,” he said. “Their trees, their decision.”
The trimming of one magnolia and the removal of another in the home’s front yard was criticized in a resolution passed Monday by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which consists of elected representatives that advise District government leaders.
“When the current owner of that property ‘trimmed’ the two trees to a very large extent, thereby removing much of the volume of the trees, the Georgetown community expressed its outrage,” the resolution said. “Appropriate sanctions should be imposed to preserve the trees in Georgetown both for ourselves and for future generations.”
Hudgens said he was not aware of the resolution.
ANC commissioner Jim Wilcox said in an email that neighbors wished to express “extreme disappointment and dissatisfaction” with Hudgens and the forestry division.
In a statement, DDOT spokesman Terry Owens said the agency “inspected the pruning job and informed the owner that the pruning was excessive and may lead to the death of the trees.”
The statement continued: “DDOT continued to monitor the health of magnolia trees and once it became clear that they were unable to recover and posed a safety hazard, tree removal permits were issued along with notice of fines pursuant to the Urban Forest Preservation Act.”
The amount of the fines was still being determined, Owens said, but “are established by law at a rate of $300 per inch of circumference.”
Sherri Kimbel, director of constituent services for D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), called the excess trimming “demolition by neglect.”
“We absolutely share the disdain of the residents on the removal of these trees,” she said. “They were removed legally, but they kind of gamed the system in a way.”
A few hours before trick-or-treating began Wednesday, workers erected six televisions outside the former Kennedy home that played Cheetos commercials ahead of a Halloween giveaway Hudgens was hosting. He said neighbors were “determined to blame” him for the tree removal.
“They’ll do whatever they’re going to do,” he said.