The Future of the Sabin Giant Sequoia Remains Uncertain
by Genna Golden (SCA and NECN member)
Trees don’t participate in human disputes. The majestic Sequoia near NE 12th and Mason, standing over 100 feet tall, formerly silent and unconcerned, has been physically brought into a battle nonetheless. As many Sabin residents are aware, our neighbors Claire Bollinger and Shayan Rohani have been in an ongoing battle with the City of Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS), Urban Forestry and their neighbors Carole Johnson-Smith and Theo Smith, with whom the Giant Sequoia straddles the property line.
On February 24th, Claire and Shayan learned that the Sequoia had been intentionally poisoned with glyphosate, commonly known as “Round Up“, poured into five holes drilled into its trunk on the neighbor’s side of the tree. The tree’s limbs, now house large sections which are clearly brown and damaged. The tree, which originated on Shayan and Claire’s property, is now considered a shared or “boundary tree” as it has grown past the property line. The trunk sits inches from the neighbor’s exterior house wall. Boundary trees require both property owner’s permission to remove.
Two Sides of the Story
Claire and Shayan want to preserve the tree. They see the neighboring property as a derelict, long neglected, uninhabitable property and feel the owners previously acted as absentee landlords. They claim the owner/neighbor purchased the house with full knowledge of the tree root issue. Although their neighbors filed a permit to repair the foundation damaged by the Sequoia’s roots, the work was never completed.The couple feels that their neighbors manipulated city bureaucracies to avoid completing the repair, and in 2019 they redirected the city from forcing the repairs on the house to naming the tree as the problem. They feel that with neighborly communications, for which they say there was extremely little, a solution could have been found. They also feel that Urban Forestry ruled in favor of removing the tree, ignoring its own tree canopy preservation laws. Since the house is now on shoring, they feel it’s an ideal time to move it out of the root zone.
Carole and Theo, the owners of the adjacent property, have a different view on the story. The Sequoia tree roots pushed through their basement wall causing substantial damage. This growth, documented in 2017, caused the city to deem the house uninhabitable and a fire hazard. (Fire hazard due to the electric panel being located on the damaged foundation wall). Having no option at that point to either rent or live in the house, the owners have been trying to resolve the problem. BDS asked them to repair the basement wall to make the structure livable. Structural engineers said there was no sense repairing the foundation, as the tree roots would continue to grow into it. It was the typical cart before the horse dilemma. They addressed moving the house, and opened a permit to move it, but ultimately decided it was cost prohibitive. Former property reports of tall grass and weeds, as well as minor interior infractions are documented with the city. The tenants they had moved out around the time the basement foundation issues came into play. In their opinion, the word “derelict” is regularly misused in order to manipulate the public. They state they put a new roof on in 2015 and although the house could use some updating, it is perfectly habitable. Carole emphasizes, “. . . the tree impacting our foundation: That is the only reason the house is not livable.” After years of bureaucratic back and forth, in 2019 they got BDS and Urban Forestry together. The parties put together a “Stipulated Agreement” stating that if they stabilized the house by placing it on shoring, it would indicate a commitment to repair the foundation, and the city would tag the tree for removal. They raised the house, and Urban Forestry tagged the Sequoia a “tree nuisance”.
When Public Support Almost Led to a Happy Ending
The 2019 tagging, unacceptable to Claire and Shayan, was addressed head on by their grass roots efforts uniting public support. They appealed the decision to remove the tree. The next hearing is scheduled for June 25th in circuit court. They posted information outside their house, started a Go Fund Me campaign through sequoiastanding.org and garnered public support and awareness via postcards and letters sent en masse from concerned tree loving citizens to city commissioners including the mayor and former head of parks.
While the appeal remains in place, with the help of Carole and Theo’s third lawyer, Jeff Kleinman, and property developer Ethan Beck, (who previously worked with Save the Giants on a lot near Reed College) save-the-giants.org, a deal was brokered. Their property would be purchased for $375K under a development plan that would preserve the tree. Claire and Shayan would contribute $75K of those funds with personal and fundraiser monies.
It was near the end of Ethan’s due diligence process that Claire and Shayan learned that the tree had been poisoned. The deal fell apart.
The Poisoning, and Who Benefits?
Both parties reported the crime to the police, who have little interest in investigating. Both parties spoke immediately with their respective arborists. The Oregon Department of Agriculture is investigating the crime and determined the tree was poisoned with glyphosate. Who would do it is the obvious question? While Carole and Theo have harbored resentment against their neighbors for not agreeing to the tree removal, they stood to benefit from the brokered deal. With their lot being purchased for $75,000 more than market value, they stood to gain. The money was going to be in their pockets in a matter of days. Carole says, “We were happy that Ethan wanted to buy the house because honestly we were so done.“ But if the deal fell through, there was still an outstanding appeal determining the tree’s fate. The sale was contingent on preserving the tree. A dead tree would make its removal imminent and potentially change the conditions under which they needed to repair the house. Carole and Theo claim to have no idea who did it and that they were looking forward to ending years of financial drain and pain to get rid of the house.
Financial drain and angst have been a part of Claire and Shayan’s lives for years as well. A dead tree puts countless hours of organizing efforts and hard-fought solutions down the drain. Previous to the tree’s poisoning, it could not be saved without changing ownership of the neighbor’s house. It is not possible to determine the exact date of the poisoning. Perhaps it was poisoned prior to the sale agreement. It could have been poisoned during the due diligence phase of the sale. Shayan states, “whoever poisoned the tree got exactly what they wanted. They broke that contract”. Should the tree survive and Shayan and Claire win the appeal, they could circle back to developing the lot with Ethan Beck, look at developing a pocket park, or continue searching for creative solutions that preserve the tree.
Will the Tree Survive?
Experts contend that we will not know if the giant will survive until a year after it’s poisoning. The large brown patches indicate the tree is “compartmentalizing” or killing off the bad parts so that other sections may survive.
The SCA endorses saving the tree. (full disclosure: Shayan and Claire are members of the SCA) The NECN has also offered contingent support should the tree live. But can the tree save itself? One can’t help but want something as old, beautiful and undoubtedly supportive of myriads of other life forms to live. The majesty of a tall tree in the landscape, and the awe it can fill in an onlooker is transformative. Few people would say “boo, hiss, cut down that majestic icon!” On the other hand, Sequoiadendron Giganteum is the most massive tree type in existence. Their trunks can grow to 26ft in diameter and their stems to a height of 300 feet. This tree may be only halfway through its natural life. A maturing Sequoia in a standard urban lot will always be a challenge. As gardeners like to say, “right plant, wrong place.”
If the tree survives, and is allowed to live, it will remain unconcerned with the direction of its roots, the houses or the human created bureaucracies far below. Its job will be simply to continue to grow; to grow as old as human and natural circumstances allow it.
Anyone with information regarding the poisoning can contact Portland Audubon at 503 380 9728 or call Portland Police Detective Division at 503 823 0400
To Donate and learn more: sequoiastanding.org
Urban Forestry. Case #19-205171-000-00-UF.