May 29, 2007

After ‘Tree of Heaven’ Was Cut Down, Neighbors Got into Heck of a Lawsuit

By Blair Anthony Robertson, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

May 29--Mike Savino has been a member of the Sierra Club for 39 years. He is also a founding member of a group devoted to saving sandhill cranes. He often treks deep into the woods, erecting or repairing wood duck nesting.

Until recently, he drove a car that ran on vegetable oil. When he retired from his state job six years ago, he designed his schedule around his array of environmental activities.

So how come a guy like Savino is getting sued for, of all things, cutting down a tree?

The answer has to do with a dispute over a property line, a tree many refer to as a weed and long-simmering animosity from Savino's neighbor.

"I know this will get a lot of laughs, but it is not laughable to me," Savino said. "The hit to my bank account is truly obscene."

Neighbors on Parkside Court in South Land Park say they side with Savino and have grown increasingly uncomfortable since October, when Savino cut down the so-called "tree of heaven," or Ailanthus altissima, on a vacant lot he owns. That act sent his neighbor, Ken Waters, into a rage.

Waters, a nephew of Sacramento City Councilman Robbie Waters and a former bail bondsman, pulled out a bullhorn and began announcing that Savino was cutting down oak trees. He didn't stop until the police arrived, according to neighbors. The tree provided shade and privacy for a portion of Waters' yard.

Savino said he cut down the tree, also known as a Chinese sumac, because he is required to maintain the vacant lot he purchased last year and that the tree "made a big mess." A recent visit to the lot found dozens of young "tree of heaven" saplings growing near the site of the former tree.

A lawsuit filed Nov. 9, 2006, by Ken Waters' wife, Diane Waters, says "plaintiff has suffered discomfort and annoyance and experienced mental suffering."

The medium-sized leafy tree stood close to a fence that separated part of Savino's vacant lot from Waters' backyard. The lawsuit suggests the fence, built years before the Waters family moved in about six years ago, is in the wrong place and that the tree may have actually been on Waters' property.

Savino says he cut down the tree in good faith and that Waters has rejected several attempts to settle the matter.

What's more, Waters reportedly directed obscene language and gestures at Savino on several occasions since the tree was felled. Neighbors say they have witnessed several such encounters.

Ken Waters refused to comment and referred questions to his attorney, Chauncey Hayes, who did not return messages left at his Carmichael law firm.

Savino says he has spent thousands of dollars defending himself for cutting down a tree many consider a nuisance.

"For the amount of money I have spent so far, I could have planted an entire forest," Savino said.

Just where the "tree of heaven" ranks -- nuisance or rapid-growing wonder -- is up for debate.

"They can be considered messy in terms of being invasive, and they could be difficult to get rid of," said William Hollins, a Sacramento County master gardener. "Those trees are viewed as weeds or desirable trees depending on who you talk to. In most cases we would think it would be an unsuitable tree."

The "tree of heaven" was included in a list of plant species considered a "serious threat to California's agricultural lands and wild areas," according to a 2003 article in "Noxious Times," published by the California Interagency Noxious Weed Coordinating Committee.

Savino retired from state service after 30 years, mostly in health care administration. He has been an environmentalist for decades and designed his retirement around his desire to work for environmental causes.

To be sued for cutting down a tree, he says, is not only ironic but embarrassing. He says that if he allowed the vacant lot to be overrun with weeds and brush, he could be fined. Savino owns three lots he has pieced together over the years. The entire parcel is massive and may well be the largest residential property in South Land Park.

He noted that Waters had to move several old boats stored in the vacant lot before Savino took possession.

Two of the boats are now parked on the street outside the Waters home.

Some neighbors on Parkside Court say they plan to meet and then confront Waters, asking him to clean up his property and tone down his animosity toward Savino.

Last week, Savino wrote a letter to Ken Waters asking what it would take to settle the matter. Waters did not respond.

"He's trying to force it to a jury trial, and I'm trying to get him to settle," Savino said.

Quick facts about 'Tree of Heaven'

Ailanthus altissima

Leaf: Alternate, pinnately compound, 1 to 3 feet long, with 11 to 41 leaflets, which are 2 to 6 inches long, pointed at the tip with large, glandular teeth near the base, green above and below. Flower: Dioecious; small yellow-green, in long (6 to 12 inches) clusters, appearing in late spring to early summer. Male flower has a disagreeable odor.

Fruit: An oblong, twisted samara, 1 to 1 1/2 inches long with the seed in the center, hanging in long clusters. It ripens in late summer and disperses through the winter. Twig: Stout, yellow to red-brown, with fine velvety hairs when young, easily broken, with a large reddish-brown pith. Buds are relatively small and half-spherical, sitting above large, heart-shaped leaf scars; terminal bud is absent. Strong odor (some are reminded of peanut butter) when broken. Bark: Thin, light brown to gray, resembles the skin of a cantaloupe when young, later turning darker gray and somewhat rough. Form: The tree can grow to 70 feet, with heavy, open branches. Lower branches on larger trees tend to droop. Often grows in clumps. Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service


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