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Neighbors fight to save old tree

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Residents of a Saratoga Springs neighborhood have obtained a court order to prevent a developer from removing a 100-year old cottonwood tree.

Residents say the tree is a landmark and the developer promised them it would not be removed. The developer responded saying he never made such a promise and the tree is diseased and poses a safety hazard.

Attorney Jerome Hamilton, who lives across the street from the tree, said his wife was distraught when she left the house Monday morning and saw workers cutting the tree down.

"First and foremost, my biggest priority is the emotional health of my wife and family," Hamilton said. "My wife and her sister bought property here because the trees reminded them of where they grew up in Ohio. This is home to them now, and for both of them, this is a huge trauma."

Hamilton is representing 21 residents who filed an injunction Tuesday morning. He says the other residents, like his wife, were told by the developer that the cottonwood tree was protected and would not be removed.

"That (tree) was the big attraction for a number of people who bought property out here, but now it's being cut down," he said.

Lawrence Russell, of Russell-Packard Development Inc., said he never made such a promise regarding the tree.

"I'm reviewing all of my documentation, and none of my representations mentioned anything about this tree," he said.

Russell said when he bought the land, he agreed to leave one lot undeveloped because of the many trees on it, and he has honored that agreement. But the tree in question is not on that lot, he said.

The lot the tree is on has already been sold, Russell said, and the building permit for a twin home has been approved and issued. The cottonwood is right in the middle of where the living room will be.

"It's a pretty tree and I wish it wasn't located in the middle of the building lot, but it is," Russell said. "But it's not the only tree out there; there are dozens around it. It's not like I'm taking out the only tree in the Gobi Desert."

Russell said he has worked around trees on other lots and done everything he could to keep them, but this tree would have to come out regardless. He said a sewer line installed beneath the tree damaged the root system, and he has been told that the tree should be removed.

Russell said it is an issue of property rights.

"I don't understand why they think they can tell me what I can do with my property," he said. "I'm upset by it. I'm not a dirty developer that's raping the land. I paid good money for that property, and I have a lot of money tied up in it."

Saratoga Springs City Manager Ken Leetham said he wasn't aware of any ordinance that would prevent Russell from removing the tree.

The injunction against Russell will be in effect until Dec. 7, when there will be a hearing before Judge Anthony Schofield in 4th District Court.