The Sap Spills Like Blood

A lot of pruning goes on at Leisure World, and its not just the residents

Photo by Matt CokerA psychic told Molly McGuire that she'll be moving out of Leisure World by summer's end. If so, she won't leave the sprawling community designed for senior citizens without a fight. But it's not her home she's trying to save; it's the hundreds and hundreds of trees that cover what is essentially the city of Laguna Woods.

The living beings that give the city its name are being threatened by what McGuire and her friends in the until-recently underground group Tree Huggers Anonymous call "tree Nazis." Since the first week of June, Tree Huggers claim, goose-stepping gardeners have been engaged in ill-conceived and -executed tree trimming and removal throughout the post-menopausal compound, which was founded in 1964.

One Tree Hugger suggested it's gone from Laguna Woods to Laguna Stumps.

The wood shedding has fueled so much rancor that merely elaborating on it causes McGuire to touch on several other hot-button Leisure World issues, including ugly home-painting jobs, a new "anti-clutter" rule and the callous seizure of a beloved rosebush.

Then she drops a bombshell.

"Bunny whacking is still going on," she says slyly.

In the spring of 2000, the Seal Beach Leisure World received animal-rights scorn and national media attention (including a Weeklycover story, "What's So Funny About Peace, Bugs and Understanding?" May 12, 2000) for a proposal to shoot rabbits as a means of population control. It was later disclosed that Laguna Woods Leisure World poisoned their hares.

Bunnycide supposedly died amid the resulting furor. But McGuire recently cradled a dead baby bunny found near her home—and she has pictures to prove it! Another Tree Hugger claims to have seen a gardener toss the thumper out of some brush and then spread what the Tree Huggers assume was poison—or maybe just grass seed to fill in the death patch.

But no one did an autopsy on that bunny or the flattened one I came across on the main drag recently. And even if they were poisoned, gardeners would not be the only suspects. Several Leisure World residents publicly support poisoning rabbits even though it's against the law. They claim that there are now so many free-range bunnies that coyotes and hawks are being drawn into Achy-Joint Acres—and some predators are taking pet dogs and cats away with them when they get sick of nightly rabbit meat.

While that's being hashed out, residents are being threatened by a new "anti-clutter rule" that would force them to rid their private patios and walkways of potted plants, herb gardens or, in McGuire's case, a Buddha statue on wheels.

Her jaw tightens at the thought.

The landscape committee for the Golden Rain Foundation—the member-representative board that owns the 3.8-square-mile Laguna Woods Leisure World—proposed the anti-clutter rule in May to keep the walkways and patios of the 12,700 senior manors clear for emergency workers and their gurneys—as required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. But the Tree Huggers believe the rule is really aimed at clearing out dissenters.

"People who have lived here a long time tell me it feels like a shift is going on, that we're being regulated into a conformist mold," said Suzanne Sparks, who moved into Leisure World last year. "They are not allowing us to express ourselves with our gardens. Landscaping has become a modicum of monotony.

"I loved it when I moved here. I thought that this is almost too good to be true. Maybe that was right on."

A towering, 40-year-old gum eucalyptus tree that until July 23 stood near Leisure World Gate No. 2 symbolizes the Tree Huggers' struggle.

"If they take this tree down, I honestly don't know if I can stand to be here," said Sparks, her voice cracking, a couple of days before a tree-cutting crew did just that.

The landscape committee blamed the eucalyptus' roots for cracking a carport's asphalt pavement and the concrete floor of a laundry room.

Golden Rain Foundation spokeswoman Terri Quinlan says the committee weighed all the available data and recommended that the parent board approve the tree's removal. After the board accepted the recommendation, someone filed an appeal, and the whole matter was investigated again. The board voted once more to chop down the tree.

"The whole idea is to prevent more structural damage," Quinlan said. "A lot of gated communities with associations have to deal with the aging process that takes place. We are dealing with roots that are disrupting sidewalks. We have to take care of it now, or it's going to become a bigger problem later."

The Tree Huggers worked diligently to win a stay of execution for the tree, which, ironically, had an Audubon Society marker nailed to it. The day before the tree's removal, Quinlan informed the Weekly that a stay had been granted. But she called back a couple of hours later to say a mistake had been made and the tree would fall as scheduled.

Sparks alleges the landscape committee ignored an expert's opinion that the tree did not cause the structural damage. That expert is a friend of McGuire's in the concrete business who blamed an improperly poured foundation for the cracks in the laundry room. As for the carport, Sparks says, carports throughout Leisure World have buckling pavement but no trees anywhere near them. She also claims the board did not investigate whether nests in the eucalyptus belonged to eagles or hawks, whose habitats must be protected by law.

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