Here's his latest piece of work. Until a few days ago these marvelous oaks were some of the few trees left on Suniga's Waln Creek Estates subdivision.
My wife and I drive past the property just about every day. And for many years we had the Oregonian delivered to a paper box on the corner of Holder Lane and Liberty Road (we live too far out in the country for home delivery).
So I got to know the trees along Liberty pretty darn well. Every time I got out of the car to grab the newspaper, I'd be aware of the presence of these old massive denizens of Oregon—who were here long before I (or George Suniga) was, and deserved to live on well after us.
Now they're gone. When I saw them laying on the ground, I was suspicious as well as sad. Suniga's history with trees isn't going to win him any Arbor Day awards, to put it mildly.
Back in August of 2006, Suniga was fined $10,000 for illegally removing trees on the Waln Creek Estates property. His city –approved development plan required that he leave a maple, a spruce, and three fir trees. Suniga's excuse was lame.
A contractor removed the trees by mistake after their roots were damaged during the demolition of a house on the property, he said. "We cautioned them, but heck, you get those young guys bulldozing and they don't pay much attention," Suniga said.
Yeah, right. An opinion piece in the Salem Statesman Journal got it right: "Protection of trees was responsibility of home builder."
Suniga has been in the business for 45 years. It took me about one Google minute to learn how to protect trees from construction damage. It's hard to believe that the trees weren't removed on purpose.
As someone said on a Statesman Journal forum, $10,000 is pocket money to a developer. Until a fine is large enough to really hurt, some environmentally unconscious builders are going to continue to cut down trees without a permit in order to pad their bottom line.
Which is what Suniga did again just a few months later, on a different development.
This time he got fined $47,250 for removing 58 trees, three of which were larger than 24 inches around, without waiting for city approval. (Here's the newspaper story; couldn't find it online, but Beth Casper, the reporter, was kind enough to email me a copy). Download salem_developer_gets_second_fine_for_tree_removal.doc
And now, the oaks. I phoned the City of Salem and reached Brandi Dalton, a tree permit staffer. She told me that Suniga had permission to remove 11-12 trees along Liberty Road, adjacent to a right of way. The supposed reason? Sidewalks.
Hmmmm. I wasn't mollified. Some of the sidewalk along Liberty had been put in before the trees were cut down. The rest of the right of way had been graveled in preparation for the remaining sidewalk construction.
It is. Much farther than the three feet that should separate a sidewalk and the trunk of a tree. A little web research also revealed that if a tree is close to a sidewalk, "deep-root trees such as oaks and maples are preferable to shallow-rooted trees like spruces and poplars."
So we have large oaks well away from a sidewalk right of way. Why cut them down? I phoned Ms. Dalton back, saying that I needed to know more about the reason a permit was given to remove the trees.
The message she left on our voice mail said that the contractor wasn't required to remove the trees. But improvements, which I gather meant the sidewalk, would affect the health of the trees. And some supposedly needed to be removed to build the sidewalk.
Well, the large oaks certainly didn't need to be removed, because they were still standing after the leveling and graveling for the sidewalk had been completed.
However, Ms. Dalton was right about the health of the trees being affected by the construction. Needlessly, in the opinion of my wife and me.
It sure looks like the trees were damaged purposely, so there'd be more justification for a removal permit. Dirt was mounded up around the trunks to a depth of several feet.
You can see in this photo that the dirt had to be excavated before the oaks were cut down. In effect, the burial took place before the killing happened.
Experts say, "If you move large amounts of soil within a tree's root zone, you will likely kill the tree. Generally, any tree covered by more than 24" or more of fill should be removed."
Which is what happened. But Suniga is responsible for moving the dirt around the oaks, compacting the soil, and covering the trunks with several feet of fill.
He trashed the oaks. Then he got a permit to remove the damaged trees. What a _____. (I've filled in the blank in my own mind. I invite you to do the same.)
If you're thinking of buying a lot at Waln Creek Estates, consider what you're buying into. This is a subdivision that hasn't respected either the surrounding neighborhood or the trees on the property.
I've talked with some people who live in the area. They don't like Suniga's style: "He's irritated the majority of us," I was told.
This afternoon I phoned George Suniga's office. Most politely, I told the woman who answered the phone that my wife and I frequently drive past Waln Creek Estates and we noticed that the oaks along Liberty had been cut down.
I said that saddened us. But if there was a good reason for their removal, that'd make us feel better. Could she tell me what the reason was?
That told me a lot. You'd think that a builder would want to stay on the good side of the public, especially since it looks like lots are beginning to be sold at Waln Creek Estates. But all I got was an "I can't help you."
Well, I'm pleased to be able to help prospective lot buyers by providing some of the tree-unfriendly history of the subdivision.
You get what you pay for. In this case, part of what your purchase price would buy is the unnecessary destruction of some majestic old oaks and other trees.
Like they say, buyer beware.
Here's a cynical, yet accurate, observation that I heard an architect make: "Most developments are named after the property's attractive natural feature that got bulldozed away." You can bet a subdivision named "Tall Firs" won't have many, if any, left.
Similarly, there's no sign of a creek in Suniga's scorched earth development. But I didn't look in every culvert.
Lastly, just to show that I'm not completely negative toward real estate developers, here's some Internet-related advice:
If you think that some prospective buyers might search for information about your subdivision by typing the development's name as a URL, WalnCreekEstates.com, for example, early on you should spend $8.95 and reserve that domain name. Otherwise, someone else could.