Chain Saw Massacre

Helen Brock momentarily ponders poet Ogden Nash's Song of the Open Road, then, in a soft Oklahoma drawl, repeats it haltingly.

"I think that I shall never see
A billboard as lovely as a tree.
Perhaps unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all."

For the past few decades, Brock has been waging a private campaign to protect the trees around her Phoenix home from being cut down to provide unobstructed views of billboards.

Until this year, she thought the only threat to the spotty supply of shade and green on her beleaguered Phoenix block came from Eller Media, the owner of an immense billboard that looms over her property, on the north frontage road of the Maricopa Freeway near 12th Street.

But early last January 6, she was awakened by the alarming buzz of chain saws chewing into about a dozen trees across the street from her house. The trees, a mix of mature eucalyptus -- some 50 and 60 feet tall -- mesquite and paloverde, were on the state-owned freeway embankment between 12th Street and 10th Street. They'd been green and healthy the day before, pluming shade across the frontage road to the doorstep of her family's auto repair shop. But now they were being cut down.

To Brock, who heads the beautification committee in the Barrios Unidos neighborhood of central Phoenix, the logging operation was more than a little suspicious.

The tree-cutters told Brock they'd been hired by the Arizona Department of Transportation. Their operation, it turned out, wasn't confined to the patch of green in front of her house. The crew was removing trees from both sides of the freeway, from 16th Street clear around the Durango curve.

Although the tree crew pointed to ADOT, Brock suspected Eller might have something to do with the cutting.

"They'd been complaining about those trees for years," she said recently. "They even tried to get me to cut my own trees, just so people could see their damned signs from the freeway, but I wouldn't do it."

It turns out she was right. Although top Eller executives and ADOT officials wouldn't talk to New Times about what happened to the trees in Brock's neighborhood, state legislators and others who made inquiries found that ADOT has a special deal with Eller to eliminate trees that obstruct Eller's billboards along Arizona roads. The state does so without consulting nearby property owners or the elected officials who represent them.

ADOT won't tell the state legislators how long the agency has been letting Eller call the shots on freeway landscaping near its signs.

But it's clear the company has worked hard over the years to sway state officials and policies.

"Eller has a big stick in this state, real big," says David Merkel, attorney for the Arizona League of Cities and Towns and former Tempe city attorney, who has worked to reduce the statewide spread of billboards.

The same can be said of the man who heads the firm, Karl Eller. The former chief of the Circle K Corporation, he founded the Karl Eller Center for the Study of the Free Enterprise Economy at the University of Arizona in the early 1980s, and later its business school was named after him.

His company has grown in the past 15 years by gobbling up other outdoor-sign outfits, becoming the second largest in the nation, with about 125,000 boards scattered in 38 cities. It's now a subsidiary of San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, one of the world's larger media conglomerates.

Eller and his executives routinely contribute the maximum allowed to the political campaigns of high-ranking state officials, generally Republican candidates.

Those contributions have paid off. In the past 15 years, Eller Media and other billboard concerns have successfully fought municipal attempts to restrict and remove nonconforming and illegal signs by convincing elected state lawmakers to pass circumventing legislation.

Last year, Arizona passed an industry-sponsored bill that reduces the amount of time cities and towns have to prosecute the owners of illegal billboards. The bill also transferred judicial authority over such matters from municipal to state Superior Court. And several years ago, Eller and other billboarders pushed through legislation that exempted billboards from municipal codes requiring outdoor signs to be taken down whenever the land beneath them is developed. All of these statutes are aimed at stalling municipal efforts to control or eliminate what local officials characterize as "billboard blight."

Phoenix alone has about 2,000 billboards, far more than other cities in the Valley. The chief reason they've lasted in an age of electronic advertising is that they continue to be cash cows. Each side of the board above Brock's property goes for $4,000 to $4,500 a month.

"The industry frankly has more clout and money than the league or any individual city does," says Merkel.

Brock says Eller's influence at ADOT and disregard for the owners of property near its signs have helped to ensure that her neighborhood will remain one of the city's ugliest.

"The way I see it," she says, "the Eller sign company just got the power to control the state. They treat everyone like dirt."

Last January, Brock's complaints about the tree-cutting bounced among city, county and state officials before finally landing with Mark Schalliol, ADOT's Phoenix area maintenance chief.

Brock says Schalliol initially told her the trees were removed because they were dead or dying. When she didn't buy that, she says he admitted they'd been removed at Eller's request.

"He told me that the Eller sign company pays them money for advertising on the freeway. So why should they grow trees that block the signs? They cut them down to the stumps," according to Brock.

Schalliol refused to discuss the tree-cutting with New Times. Repeated calls to ADOT director Mary Peters and Eller executives were not returned.

The neighborhood's state senator, Linda Aguirre, and two representatives, Leah Landrum and Carlos Avelar, told New Times they'd never heard of plans to remove the trees or the arrangement between ADOT and Eller.

Landrum adds that ADOT officials left the community entirely out of the loop.

Representative William Overton, who chairs the state House Transportation Committee, which oversees ADOT, hadn't heard about the incident either. But the agency's involvement wouldn't surprise him, he says. "ADOT is usually overwhelming in its arrogance when they decide to do something," says Overton. "Any deal with Eller, if one exists, would never come to the committee or Legislature. ADOT staffers would simply take care of it on their own."

That's what happened here.

Following up on inquiries by New Times, Landrum says Schalliol recently told her the same thing he'd told Brock months ago, that the trees were taken down because they obstructed Eller's signs.

Schalliol said the agreement between Eller and ADOT was, in Landrum's words, "a barter type of situation," in which Eller is obliged to replace the trees ADOT removes. "But I don't know who, if anyone, is policing that," she says.

Asked if ADOT or Eller would replant the same kind of trees, he told her, "No, they would be too tall and block the signs," adding, "They would put in some nice shrubs."

But, says Landrum: "I don't know how a little shrub could replace a tree that's 20 years old."

Though top Eller executives wouldn't discuss the company's ties to ADOT, several current and former lower-rung Eller employees confirmed that the company works with the agency on tree removal.

"Look, if you own signs and the trees are blocking them," says Gil Stedman, a former Eller employee who headed the company's Phoenix field operations, and tried a number of times to convince Brock to let Eller trim the trees on her property, "you do what you need to do to get them cleared out. If that means working with ADOT and going to city council meetings to find out what they can do and going through the process to get them trimmed, then that's what you do."

He and others say Charles Gorham, Eller's real estate manager, handled the tree-cutting arrangements with ADOT.

Gorham refused to discuss the matter.

However, when asked whether Eller could get some more trees removed near the sign, a company sales representative happily told New Times, "We can get those trees cleared. We have a way of doing that."

Brock and other residents see the destruction of the trees as one more blow against a neighborhood that has become one of Phoenix's best examples of community environmental degradation.

The area, a hodgepodge of homes, commerce and heavy industry just south of downtown and west of Sky Harbor Airport, includes numerous abandoned properties, some containing significant levels of hazardous waste.

Its proximity to the airport means booming jet noise and a constant drizzle from jet and diesel fuel. That's led many residents and city officials to consider the neighborhood unfit for habitation. The city's aviation department is attempting to negotiate buyouts of residents willing to move.

Yet Brock is not one of them. She's lived in the area since 1946, and she remembers when the dominant color of the terrain was an irrigated green, rather than the parched brown that has taken hold.

"I know things have changed here," she says, "but I'm still concerned about the look of our stinking freeways. They should be beautiful. Our city is growing. Why does this block in here have to be so ugly and nasty when the new freeways up north are landscaped and beautified with earth-colored stones and paint and art?"

Julian Sodari, a community activist in the neighboring Grant Park area, contends that by removing big trees and replacing them with saplings, ADOT has not only stripped the landscape of beauty, but also destroyed a badly needed buffer against the highway's noise and trash.

"Those trees actually kept debris and dirt and tire junk from flying off the freeway into the neighborhood," he says. "For a lot of people who live right by the road, they were protection."

Urban freeways built in the 1960s didn't earn many neighborhood green points. Yet the stretch of Maricopa Freeway (I-17) through Barrios Unidos was worse than many. For Brock and other residents, its construction from 1960 to 1963 marked the beginning of the end of the neighborhood's relative peace, quiet and limited prosperity. Instead of sinking the freeway below the grade of the surrounding terrain, the state opted to elevate it, cutting off the neighborhood's horizon and views of south Phoenix farmland. Over the years, its concrete path became the line that banks, insurance companies and Phoenix officials have used to mark the spine of inner-city neglect and blight.

For Brock and other longtime residents, that blight began with the freeway's immense embankment.

"When they built it," she says, "the only landscaping they put in was rocks and dirt. We complained about that for a long time. We kept asking them to do something, to plant trees."

The trees that ADOT/Eller recently destroyed were the state's answer to those neighborhood pleas. The state itself planted them nearly two decades ago.

"It took 18 years to grow those trees," says Brock. "It was our tax money that paid to haul the old sterile dirt out and haul clean dirt in. It was our taxes that paid to do the drip irrigation system and all that labor and material and stuff. We paid them to maintain it for all these years. What sense does it make to turn around and whack it all down?"

That question isn't confined to Phoenix.

"This is a big problem and issue nationwide," says Meg Maguire, president of Scenic America, a private national nonprofit organization that opposes billboards and the billboard industry. "The industry likes to call it vegetation control. But what it really amounts to is public tree-cutting for private interests."

To the industry, whose profits depend on visibility, trees usually add more red than green to the bottom line.

"It's simply economics," says Myron Laible, director of regulatory affairs for the pro-billboard Outdoor Advertisers Association of America. "If you can't see the sign, it impacts the advertiser's ability to reach the traveling public." He equates the planting of trees in front of billboards with the taking of a billboard owner's property rights.

But some people say that isn't the only taking going on.

Kelley Zak, who heads the City of Phoenix sign-permitting office, says her office periodically receives complaints about Eller crews illegally cutting trees. One area was along Seventh Avenue where business owners had paid for the street's landscape improvements several years ago.

"We have no proof," says Zak. "But it was very obvious what had happened. It was right in front of the billboard. In fact, our parks department went and showed them how to trim trees so they would not kill and destroy them."

Ryan Chotichuti, who, along with her husband, Adej, owns the Wicker & Rattan Design Center in Tucson, says proof of Eller's landscaping practices can be found outside their store.

"We've had to stop Eller crews several times from cutting a big beautiful tree on our property," she says. "They send crews out at early hours, before we're open. And if they're caught, they say things like, 'We're just helping you trim the tree,' or, 'Whoops, we made a mistake, we have the wrong place.' They've really got the routine down."

About 25 states permit tree-cutting on public land to better the views of billboards. Twenty do not. Alaska, Maine, Hawaii and Vermont forbid billboards altogether.

In recent years, legislative fights over tree-cutting and other billboard matters have erupted in Georgia, Kentucky, New York and a handful of other states.

ADOT would not provide any information about its landscaping procedures. However, Maguire and Laible, who track rules for tree-cutting around billboards state by state, say that Arizona's tree-cutting policies are ambiguous.

"I'm not aware of a specific state law," says Laible. "I think Arizona's got some informal agreements on a district-by-district basis within the highway department."

He says the customary practice is to have a state landscaper or arborist inspect the site and recommend a course of "reasonable vegetation and landscape control."

He also said the state permit process for cutting publicly owned trees usually entails public hearings where state officials could take neighborhood views and issues into consideration.

ADOT takes none of those steps.

But had it done so in this case, there's little doubt what Brock and her neighbors would have said about the tree removals.

Her likely testimony is visible to anyone who drives the Maricopa Freeway west from 16th Street. Wheeling toward 13th Street about a quarter-mile east of Seventh Street, you can see a looming, 50-year-old eucalyptus tree that Brock planted shortly after she moved to the property. The tree was there before the road, before the billboard. In fact, you almost don't know there's a billboard with the message "Don't Let the Sierra Club Drain Lake Powell" behind the tree until you whiz past the clearing that ADOT created.

But its poor visibility isn't likely to change.

Brock keeps a stack of soiled correspondence, going back several decades, that details every written exchange between her and the billboard's owners. And on a calendar she records past visits from Eller employees and what they've told her.

She and her son Mike used to trim the trees themselves.

"We originally thought we were obliged to do that," says Brock. "But that's when they were intimidating us and we didn't know our rights."

Since wising up, she has turned away pruners who've come alone and pruners escorted by police. "The police knew they didn't have any standing out here."

She's rejected numerous offers to let Eller landscape her entire yard.

"They told me they'd even plant some new trees if I cut that one big major tree down," she says. "It's probably 60 to 70 feet tall. They offered me $2,000. I said no. They got up to $10,000."

But, Brock says, "Why would I want a little bitty tree, maybe three feet tall like the ones they're going to put out on the road?"

She has a better idea.

With a look of mischief, she points to a pine tree rising next to her house.

Says Brock, "Now that's a good, sturdy tree. It really holds the water well, so I'm watering and fertilizing that sucker like crazy.

"And I hope it grows up and blocks that damned sign long after I'm gone."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow