Longform

Chain Saw Massacre

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"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?"

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow