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Attempted tree removal creates cul-de-sac conflict

Thursday, August 5, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

A saga that stretched a year and a half and pitted neighbor against neighbor ended last week when the Planning Commission prevented North Austin resident Patrick Fulker from removing a cottonwood tree in the public right of way. 

Neighbor Krenda Rodis saved the tree by appealing the Environmental Commission’s decision allowing it to be removed. “These trees, they’re the heart and soul of our neighborhood,” Rodis said. Fulker had asked the city multiple times if he could remove the tree and the city repeatedly said no.

Some accused Fulker of selfishly seeking to remove all the trees in the right of way along his property because of newly installed solar panels. “These trees weren’t an issue for this neighbor prior to the installation of solar panels on the east face of their roof,” said Guy LeBlanc, an independent arborist.

Fulker did not mention solar panels in his testimony. “I was very disappointed at the large amount of misinformation and things that are being said about me,” he said, arguing instead that the tree threatens his water pipes and drops fuzz that clogs his AC unit. He also noted that many cities (though not Austin) consider the cottonwood a nuisance and prohibit people from planting it.

The cottonwood in question, unaware of its brush with death, stands just outside Fulker’s yard as it has for approximately 80 years. Photo by city of Austin.

Fulker already got the city to remove a separate cottonwood in the right of way after the roots interfered with water pipes. As mitigation for the removal of the tree under discussion, Fulker said he would plant two 4-caliper-inch oaks “that will provide the same benefits that this tree provides.”

Neighbor Renee Houseman argued that this was just the beginning of Fulker’s tree-removal crusade: “You think we’re talking about one tree, we’re not. There’s four, and he’s going after them one by one.” 

Though the case is settled, the relationships strained by the process may take longer to heal. Over the course of the meeting, neighbors accused Fulker and Brad Hunt, another neighbor in favor of the removal, of lying, gaslighting and otherwise acting in bad faith. Fulker said that the neighbors were painting him as a villain by spreading misinformation. Hunt, who decried the “horrible things” the opposing camp said about him and Fulker, accused one neighbor of being racist and others of “collusion” with city staffers.

​​“I love all my neighbors,” Rodis insisted, “despite everything that’s going on.”

At the center of it all stands the cottonwood – age 80, height 65 feet, width 20 inches, and healthy by all accounts. “The subject of this appeal is a healthy tree in good condition,” wrote Lisa Killander, an urban forester with the Public Works Department. “The city (was) unable to find any reason to grant a request to remove this tree.”

Perhaps the most impactful testimony came from 8-year-old Luther Houseman, who, having lived near the tree most of his life, told the commission they should let it stay: “I learned to ride a bike, had many fun birthdays and holidays all made possible and better by these beautiful trees. The shade is cool and nice. The first tree being cut down made it super hot …. Please leave the trees because they make my neighborhood and life better.”

Jessica Cohen, an ex-officio member of the Board of Adjustment, asked how long it would take the mitigation trees to offer the benefits of the existing cottonwood. “In our lifetimes it’s irreplaceable in my professional opinion,” Killander said of the cottonwood.

Commissioner Claire Hempel motioned to uphold staff’s determination. “I’ve heard a lot of reasons not to plant trees,” she said. “There’s always a reason why the tree is a nuisance.” The commission voted unanimously in favor of the motion.

“What was upsetting about this case,” Hempel said, was “how the neighbors were fighting” over it.

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