Longform

Chain Saw Massacre

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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."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow