But the 54-year-old Schnitzer recently learned a new civics lesson beyond his regular service on the boards of nonprofits: In an increasingly crowded city, every tree has its price-a steep one.
Schnitzer, who lives in the Southwest Hills, felt six trees were blocking his view-the same view that caused him to shell out about a million bucks for his 5,000-square-foot house back in 1996.
The thorny part? Three of the six trees were not on his land. And all six were in a city environmental zone that required special permission before they could be cut.
Nevertheless, early last year, the trees that Schnitzer wanted gone suddenly stopped obstructing his view. Schnitzer says the culprit was his overzealous gardener acting without his authority. "I was upset," he says, "I said, 'Jesus, what the hell did you do?!'" adding that he immediately called his neighbor, who owns the land with three of those trees, to say it was an honest mistake.
The neighboring property in Schnitzer's backyard is actually a 40-acre parcel of woodlands owned by the Three Rivers Land Conservancy. The small, local nonprofit was unconvinced the cutting was a mistake. "The cutting was intentional from the very beginning, as far as we were concerned," says Jay Minor, chairman of the board for the conservancy.
Three Rivers reported Schnitzer to the city, and both sides lawyered up over the stumps of a 20-inch maple, two smaller alders, and some bushes.
Libby Keller McCaslin, a neighbor of Schnitzer's and the granddaughter of the woman who in 1983 donated the woods for preservation, wrote the city in January 2005 saying Schnitzer should have known better.
"My grandmother did not give this land so that someone with substantial financial resources could violate the restrictions with impunity," she wrote.
Schnitzer says his deed gives him a view easement letting him cut trees on conservancy land with proper notice. But because he didn't get permission, it has turned into an expensive piece of landscaping.
Had Schnitzer asked permission first, he would have paid a few thousand dollars for the permit, not counting city-ordered environmental improvements.
He wound up paying $10,000 to get a retroactive tree-cutting permit, as well as another $38,000 to plant 85 trees both on his and Three Rivers property as ordered by a city hearings officer in January. Then, in an agreement signed with Three Rivers last month, Schnitzer bought the three-quarters of an acre he cut on for $66,000.
And then there's also a donation from Schnitzer to make the conservancy's threatened lawsuit disappear. Schnitzer and the conservancy won't discuss that donation, but one source says it's roughly $50,000, making for an estimated price tag of $165,000, not including legal fees. This, says Schnitzer, for three trees-two of which were already dead. "How would you feel if you were in this situation?" he asks.
For others, Schnitzer did not pay enough. "I can't believe the conservancy sold him the land," says one source in the conservation community. "It sets a bad precedent."
Nancy Murray, the conservancy's attorney, defended the deal as a win for the environment, noting that Schnitzer also gave up his right to cut trees on Three Rivers' land.
Schnitzer, for his part, views his story as a microcosm of the litigious nature of environmental politics: "When attorneys become involved," he says, "all kinds of things get said."