Last night two drunks came to visit the trees. It was 3 am, and they parked their car so the headlights shone on the massive trunks as they stumbled around, gazing skyward.
"These things are fucking huge, man."
"We can't let them cut 'em down…"
They woke me up, and I stood at our bedroom window tempted to tell them to shut up. But the thing is, I sympathize with those guys. The trees are indeed huge, over 150 feet tall. There are three of them, all planted in a neat row supposedly back in the 1800s, giant sequoias with trunks so thick you could drive a small car through them, just like they do in those national parks on the California coast. It would indeed be a shame to cut them down, especially just to make room for one more big house that no one in particular has asked for.
Even Vic Remmers, the developer who plans to build it, agrees with the drunk guys, to a certain extent. âI really wish we could find another solution,â he wrote me.
By "another solution," Remmers means he'd like to get his invested money back, plus a $250,000 profit. His company, Everett Custom Homes, bought the land four months ago—two city lots, one of them empty but for the trees, and the other with a modest house that was being pushed over by the roots of the giant sequoias next door. We live on the other side of the trees and had hoped to buy the tree lot back when it was put up for sale. We didn't really have the money, though, and Everett Custom Homes swooped in with $650,000 cash for both lots.
We thought perhaps they'd have trouble getting a permit to cut down the trees and might work around them instead. The name of the company was "Custom Homes," after all. But it turned out there was nothing custom about the huge Tudor-style houses it planned to drop on the land. And the company had no trouble getting permits to cut down every single tree on both lots. Prior to a newly adopted tree ordinance, a Portland resident would have had to pay about $80,000 to cut down those trees.
Now developers merely pay a small, uniform fine into a "tree mitigation fund." Remmers and his company ponied up $2,400 for the right to cut everything down. The traditional 35-day waiting period for public input on their plans was waived.
A crane would be brought in, we were told, and workers would first limb each tree so they could be rendered enormous spiky poles. Then they'd shear the trees down in small chunks that could be lowered carefully to the ground. These chunks, useless as lumber, would have to be chopped into chips for the landfill.
But the night before this was to happen, a posse of news trucks camped out on our street. Hundreds of protesters arrived in the morning, and the TV reporters gave live updates, waiting for a showdown. In the days leading up, some neighbors had made a last-ditch effort to buy the land from Remmers. It wasn't until those news trucks and protesters showed up that he offered to cut a deal. A meeting was set at a local coffeehouse for later that morning.
A small group of us waited for the developer, some having just met that very morning. Remmers strolled in late, a tall, former Oregon State University basketball player, in his early 30s. He sat down, and right away the head of our neighborhood association berated him with threats of lawsuits and protesters endlessly blocking his way.
Remmers, unmoved, calmly presented us with his deal: We pay him $900,000 cash by the end of the week, or he would move ahead and cut down the trees. We stammered attempts at bargaining, but he showed no interest and checked his phone as conversation swirled around him.
In the end he gave us 10 days, and the price held firm at $900,000. We told him we felt we could come up with the money, and Remmers left.
âDoes anyone here have $900,000?â I asked.
The answer was, sadly, no. There were a lot of people down by the trees, though, including three TV trucks, all waiting for news on the "negotiation." By the time I got back there, a story had been spun: "Neighborhood agrees to pay $900,000 to save trees…" A peppy anchorwoman stood in front of the crowd and told us all to cheer when she gave the signal.
âUm, wait,â I tried to say. But they got their shot of a happy crowd, and then the trucks and protesters left.
It didn't take us long to realize that this $900,000 was a huge long shot. A rough accounting left us well short of our vision of a "people's park" featuring the giant trees.
A friend who runs a portable sawmill heard about our fundraising efforts and said, "Spending that much money on saving three trees sounds nuts to me." He pointed out that giant sequoias aren't even native to this area. "Think of how many acres of native oak forest that money could save."
I had struggled with this myself. Imagine all the other things one could do with that kind of money? But I give money to any number of causes about which the same criticism could be leveled—Kickstarter campaigns for films, animal rescue, etc. It would be a pretty self-defeating world if we didn't try to solve smaller problems just because bigger ones are more deserving of our attention.
Still, what kind of solution was this? Who were we to try to pay off this developer? A story on OregonLive.com was littered with disparaging remarks about wealthy Eastmoreland residents throwing their money away. I could honestly see both sides. Why did these trees matter so much anyway? Their previous owners, who lived on the property for more than 60 years, didn't seem to mind seeing them cut down, so who were we to complain?
But hold on, have you seen these frickin' trees? Come take a look at them, please. Come over and tell me we'd all be better off if they were cut down to make room for a maximum-sized, Tudor-style house.
The 10-day window passed, and we didn't have the money, not even close. I went out of town and expected the trees to be gone when I returned. But they were not. It's been well over a month now, and still Everett Custom Homes has not moved in. Perhaps all the letters and emails and phone calls have given Remmers pause. Every day people come driving, biking or walking up our street to see the trees, just like those two drunks who visited last night. They all shake their heads and can't believe someone would want to destroy this sight. But who has the money, or power, to actually make it stop?
In the middle of all this, Everett Custom Homes proudly announced it had received a "2015 Green Home Builder Award" from Earth Advantage Institute. At what point can we no longer greenwash away our footprints? What if those three giant sequoias represent a line in the sand in this rapidly transforming city?
Remmers wrote a letter to our neighborhood last month, closing with the line, âSometimes change is necessary.â To many of us, though, a company like Everett Custom Homes doesnât represent change at all. It just represents more of the same thing.
Arthur Bradford is the author of three books, including the 2015 story collection Turtleface and Beyond, and director of the Emmy-nominated documentary 6 Days to Air, about the filming of a single South Park episode. Negotiations with Remmers continue as of this writing, and Friends of Trees is accepting donations at Friendsoftrees.org/savethegiants.