The Costly Cut Tree on Blodgett St.

This is one of the trees that the city alleges was “wantonly” and “maliciously” chopped down over the weekend by developer Signature City Homes. (This and another 100-year-old live oak that used to stand across town on Bomar in Hyde Park.) In response, the city is seeking $500,000 in damages. The tree stood in front of 1702 Blodgett — which, you’ll remember, was demolished a few weeks ago to make room for 4 townhouses. That demolition was precipitated by an approved variance request by Signature City to reduce the setback on this lot at the corner of Blodgett and Jackson in Museum Park, just down the street from that strip center that caught fire in August.


Attorney David Feldman, representing the city, has this to say about the suit:

“The timing of the destruction of trees on a weekend raises the suggestion that the developer cut the trees down in an attempt to escape detection and avoid certain community protest and legal action. It is also particularly disturbing coming on the heels of the well-publicized destruction of vegetation at Woodland Park and the price that a developer had to pay for its acts in that instance. These defendants placed their own commercial interests ahead of our citizens’ right to enjoy these trees. We have to make it clear to everyone that the public will simply not tolerate this type of conduct.”

That “well-publicized destruction of vegetation” Feldman is talking about involved an acre of parkland that was cleared from behind under-construction townhomes in Woodland Heights. For that, the city fined first-time developer Bill Workman — who asserted that the clearing had been the result of a miscommunication with a subcontractor — $300,000.

Photo: Allyn West

44 Comment

  • Good. Put their balls in a vice.

    Figuratively, of course.

  • Oh dang someone just threw another steak in the lion pit, thank a lot, “Gus”.
    No, the guy should not have cut it down, yes he was completely in the wrong, he should have worked creatively with the tree where it is, that’s what I would have done. I also think the call for blood is way out of proportion to the damage, any good attorney will be able to bust the lawsuit to size because it’s impossible to show a hard $ value to the tree, only replacement value of a new tree (or several trees to compensate for size).

  • (The developer I mean, of course.)

  • Having a reduced setback is not the same as being in a “public right-of-way” as quoted in the previous article. If the tree trunk was more than 50% in the existing right-of-way it still cannot be cut down without permission from the city … it can, however, be trimmed so accommodate building within the new setback (but not at the ground).

  • Sad to see a tree go but seeking $500K in damages is completely ridiculous.

  • anything less that a trillion dollars and the owner’s first born will be a miscarriage of justice.

  • While I think a developer cutting down a ROW tree without explicit permission should lead to a fine, I would like to know the developer’s side to this story. Working with the City is a challenge even under good circumstances, so it’s reasonable for me to believe that something might have happened along the way that lead the developer to believe that it was Ok to remove these trees. Or not, don’t know yet, but I would rather all the facts come out before judging whether this punishment fits the crime.

  • Pathetic suit by the city. No tree in the world is worth $500K. Give him a $2500 fine, and force him to replant another tree. Life goes on…its a tree.

  • For those who think the $500k figure is too high, I propose a counter argument. Shouldn’t the fine equal the cost of replacements, with a penalty tacked on? And not replacing them with saplings, but with 100 year old oaks. I’d imagine that it would be very expensive to move 100 year old trees to replace the ones cut down; removing them from the soil, renting the 18 wheelers, loading them on the trucks, blocking off traffic, digging the new holes, possibly moving utilities, lowering the trees into their new locations, and looking after the trees for years till they stabilize, etc. When looking at it from that perspective, the $500k penalty might be a bargain. Here’s an article about the logistics Rice had to go through to move a tree half the size of the ones in question:

  • Replacement value doesn’t cut it for a tree (pardon the pun). A large, old tree provides shade. A new sapling doesn’t provide anything for at least 10 years.

  • Obviously not too many people here know how much it would cost to plant a tree of that size. To move or transplant a fully grown tree could easily cost $100,000, which is why you almost never see it done. A young tree would only cost a few thousand, but to replace what was there, plus 100% punitive damages to discourage future illegal removal, I think 500k seems about right for two trees removed.

  • Well it does not exactly look like a healthy tree–it’s hard to tell if the clumps are leaves are mistletoe or not.
    What I find so interesting is that the city lays claim to these sidewalk islands yet assumes no responsibility for maintaining them. Yet if the tree were dead, it would be the homeowner’s responsibility. In a related vein, the City requires landscaping for commercial properties (maybe others I am not sure) in these sidewalk islands which in turn, depending on what is planted, wreak havoc on the sidewalks and streets from root issues and get tangled in the ever present power lines. Then everyone bitches when Centerpoint hacks away or someone can’t traverse the sidewalk.

  • @Bobby P:

    Really? Destroyed property that will literally take a century to replace isn’t worth $500,000?

  • The size of the fine is in line with the act in that – why did the developer choose to do such an act when he did it? Too long has Houston been a place where the few rules we have are disregarded and a pittance mea culpa is used to endorse such bad developer behavior. Making developers pay for their mistakes – especially when they are so obviously premeditated with their timing – is the only tool the city has to keep developers somewhat in check on such issues.

  • Only $500,000 in damages?

  • I don’t see the 500000 as ridiculous in the slightest. You can’t replace a 100 year old oak, this jerk knew exactly what he was doing when he cut it down just like that asshole in The Heights. If you’re going to get the attention of these arrogant pricks you have to make the fine large enough to be a true deterrent. We’ll see if his lawyer can get the fees lowered, I really hope the COH ties him in knots so he gets screwed in legal fees as well. This seems to be becoming a real problem, so I hope the fine is upheld.

  • @Walt, however, it is unrealistic to expect the tree to be replace with an equal 100 year old tree… those are hard to find and most likely will die in transport, also it would still mean 1 less tree in the world. It should be replaced with SEVERAL newly planted trees from saplings. Woodlands does it by calculating trunk size, and new saplings have to be equal to or greater than the original tree. At the end you get more cannopy, more trees in the world, and they will grow old and large over time.

  • The severity of the penalty shouldn’t depend on how convenient the remedy is to the offending party. If you damage someone’s property, you have a responsibility to make that person “whole” again. Now, not 5-10 decades in the future.

    Even if the trees just lower the temperature a few degrees, the additional cooling costs alone will probably exceed $10,000 by the time you have a 100 year-old tree again.

  • This is just election year theatrics so Annise will have a touchy feely issue. Looking at the photo again, the tree is not even in the sidewalk island. So now, if someone wants to cut a tree in the yard they have to get a survey to determine the
    ROW–it’s a crappy looking tree regardless of it’s age and so far no one knows the other side of the story.

  • If a Houston developer was given the task of historical renovation at Oak Alley Plantation in Louisiana, it would go something like this:

    I cut down all the 300 year old live oaks leading into the mansion, they really were blocking the view of the River, but hey here’s 40 saplings plant them at your leisure.

  • @#13 JT—

    Just as info, if a DEAD tree is in the city easement (between the sidewalk and the street) the COH will come out and cut it down with no charge to the homeowner.

    The tree would need to be reported to 311, the city will come out to inspect it and if the crew decides it is in fact dead, they’ll schedule it’s removal.

    If it is dead in your yard, it is your problem.

  • Seems to me from looking at Google Streetview that the tree was on the owner’s property. Do Houstonians have to get a permit to cut down their own trees now?
    If anyone ruined citizens’ rights to enjoy these trees, it was the power company for putting those lines up in the way of the branches.

  • Thanks for the info Pyewacket2!

  • Good for the city. A quick google search shows that Signature City Homes is a side business for a Bellaire based dentist. Sorry, but that douche doesn’t even live in the city. Maybe he’ll think twice next time before he kills 100 year old oak trees in someone else’s neighborhood.

  • There’s smart development and then there’s dumb development and this is an example of the latter. The penalty should be the cost of the replacement of the destroyed property by one of equal or higher value, i.e. another 100 year old oak tree dug up, moved, replanted on the same site. Punitive damages may also apply here since the flaunting of the law seems to have been deliberate and calculated.

    I suggest that the developer embraces the ‘miscommunication defense’, agrees to pay the $500K, and apologizes to the community publicly (and fast). Else he may be the recipient of a developer ‘Darwin Award’ and goes out of business.

  • Do you have to have a survey every time you cut down a tree? No. You have to have a survey every time you transact land, and that survey just happens to tell you what is actually yours vs. what belongs to someone else. In this case, the trees belonged to the City, and it’s pretty far-fetched that someone engaged in property development wouldn’t already know how to read a survey. If he doesn’t, then this will be a big incentive to learn.

    If he did, then he’s lucky not to be charged with criminal mischief or willful destruction of public property. Old trees are expensive, and I doubt anyone saying, “Hey, it’s just a tree” would feel the same about someone selling their City-provided car on eBay (hey, it’s just a car — we’ve got lots of them!).

  • How about some developer jail time for these white collar crimes?

  • Many cities derive a sense of character and beauty from natural features. Some have mountain panoramas, some have bays, some have beaches. Houston has grand oak trees. And that’s it really. Trees have a utility value, hence the fine. The city should discourage lawbreaking, hence a punitively large fine. Chopping down the trees diminished the character and beauty of Houston, hence the public calls for blood. I think it is appropriate for people to express their anger, so long as they do it legally. The developer knew what they were risking when they made their decision and they should face the full consequences. Think of it as an anger signal in the free market of human behavior.

  • Out with the old and in right the new, right? Isn’t that the idea of this blog? The tree doesn’t even look healthy. When it falls over in 5 years and the owners of the property sue the city for damages, won’t you be glad that the tree was removed on the developers dime and not the tax payers? Shouldn’t the city promote gentrification and not impose ridiculous fines without any type of merit? Maybe I am wrong? That is assuming that the government ALWAYS does things the right way.

  • @#23 (Thomas),

    That’s what I thought too when I saw the trunk. It looks like the majority of the canopy might be on COH land. I’m not sure which is the relevant measure, but if it’s based on the trunk, this whole discussion on the lawsuit could be moot.

    That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be more incentives for developers to preserve mature trees – incentives other than avoiding public outrage.

  • Amen, #29. And not all of Houston has grand oak trees, or ever will. Given the forum, it’s heartening to count 17 pro-tree posts, and one imponderable, #30: If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is there to hear it because it was cut down five years ago, does it make any sound?

  • @#30,
    Tree removal companies and developers always claim that the tree was on the verge of falling over and was about to kill somebody. “Watch out! … It almost hurt somebody. … I did you a favor.” etc. etc.

    I’ve heard a lot of made up excuses including “that species of tree always falls apart and loses branches eventually”. Really? Well, it seems to reach a sturdy 100+ feet in nature, they make furniture out of it, and the tree they cut was only 25 years old and about 30 feet tall. Whom should I believe? A rep from tree removal company who has no education in botany and with a vested interest in cutting down the tree? I don’t think so.

  • As we prepare to replace our driveway our concrete guy was telling us that the first 20ft from the street up the driveway is in the City purview. So not just the space between the sidewalk and the curb. He was saying any roots cut inside that 20ft belong to the city and cutting them comes with a fine.

    Unfortunately for us we have three horribly ugly trees in our ROW. I just keep praying the drought gets them this time around so I can replace with something nicer.

  • Developers in Houston have a passion for cutting down big trees. Any chance to hand out fines is a good thing.

  • Let’s be clear about which trees we’re talking about.

    The first is here, and is a Live Oak:

    The second is a Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and is on Blodgett:

    First, neither tree is dead, drying, or unhealthy. The picture on this blog shows the tree when it did not have all its leaves (Sweetgum is deciduous). The Streetview image is taken probably in early May (based on clues from nearby vegetation) and clearly shows that it is healthy and has all its leaves.

    Second, the live oak is without a doubt on COH land. 100% of the trunk is on COH land and streetward of the sidewalk. I would guess that 60% of the canopy is also on COH land. Their action is obviously a blatant disregard for the law.

    Third, while I couldn’t be sure that either tree is 100 years old, that live oak canopy is larger than the footprint of any of the nearby houses. Probably 5 houses are benefitting from its shade. That tree’s canopy extends all the way across Crocker Street almost to the sidewalk on the other side of the street. It’s clear that pedestrians are also deriving benefit from it, probably on a daily basis.

    After looking into it in detail, I believe $500,000 is not excessive.

  • “This and another 100-year-old live oak…”

    Before we all freak out, let’s get our facts straight. Judging by the leaf shape and bark on Google Street View, this was actually a Sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua), not a “live oak” (Quercus virginiana). Sweetgum is still considered a “hardwood” tree in forest circles. In urban areas, they are generally less desirable species due to their annual drop of spiky seed balls that are a bane to bare feet.

    The growth rate of sweet gum is actually must faster than live oak, so realistically, this tree may only have been 25-50 years old (judging by the trunk diameter). Not saying 50 is not significant, just that it’s an order of magnitude less than 100.

    Also, that image shows a rather healthy tree, despite a few straggly dead branches (normal for this species, and easily maintained with a little regular pruning).

  • Once again, no he should not have cut the tree down, even to a developer/builder a tree is an asset, it makes the finished product show better. But, if he had to do it, there’s an old trick I heard that some people have used… Inject the trunk at the base with a strong herbicide, wait a couple of weeks for the tree to lose leaves and die, and then make the city remove it for free.

    Just saying, not advocating it.

  • Way to go Walt! there’s a huge difference in “community” value in old trees versus a few new saplings, regardless of whether anybody can put a dollar price on them. People put the value they want on them – got a house with an big oak: my property should sell for thousands more because of this beautiful tree, they say! But put that same tree in an inconvenient location, the owners thinks it’s worth zero. It’s arbitrary and every time they cut down an old tree the community loses something of value that is priceless.

  • commonsense,

    Now THAT you can go to jail for. If you aren’t familiar with the case, Google “Harvey Updyke” or “Alabama tree poisoning”. This guy served 3 years for the crime.

    He was caught because he admitted to it – bragged, actually. If this were to happen in quick succession to two large trees next to two projects by the same developer, I think there would be more than enough evidence to prove that the developer was guilty.

    Lots of things are an “old trick”, including lynching. With good reason, there are severe punishments for many things which were once acceptable.

  • Maybe that’s where I heard it. But if no one admits to it, it would be impossible to prove in court. Even though the developer may have an interest in it hapenning, it is a far cry from beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • “If this were to happen in quick succession to two large trees next to two projects by the same developer, I think there would be more than enough evidence to prove that the developer was guilty.”

    It is rather obvious that you are not an attorney. I do not recommend you trying to be one, either. Your example proves nothing more than a suspicion, which is not even enough to secure a warrant.

  • Dave,
    The coincidence would prompt an investigation. No warrant is needed to test the soil or the tree for evidence of poison, especially since it’s not on the developer’s land. Even a casual investigation by the authorities of two-bit outfit would likely (but who can know for sure??) something.

    To avoid jail, there’s a chance he’d probably plea for some kind of fine, since most cases plea out. If he wouldn’t, you’re wrong to think a jury wouldn’t or couldn’t convict on circumstantial evidence. It’s sometimes hard to tell when the DA will pursue the case, but with enough angry people and the City Attorney “refusing to settle” the issue so far (probably on behalf of Parker), I wouldn’t doubt that a tree-poisoning case could be brought to trial.

    Then again, I haven’t looked at the details of the law or that case in Alabama, so I don’t know if there would be major differences were it to happen in Houston.

  • Who is the developer cutting the trees down?