The Sap Spills Like Blood

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.

Despite the gum eucalyptus' execution, the Tree Huggers vow to fight on. It bugs them to no end that one resident complaint can lead to judicial arboricide. They say the trimming is excessive and fear it is being done at the wrong time of year. Some trees now appear so distorted it takes a good hard look to determine their varieties. Songbirds have disappeared because they have no cover in which to nest. Left in their wake is what seems like an exploding crow population.

"No one anticipated the crows, but had they dialogued with someone who knows about birds, they would have known what would happen," said McGuire, who blames the aggressive black birds for driving out the songbirds.

"It's their whole policy," Sparks said. "We want a voice. We want to be consulted. We want to be heard."

That's apparently a problem when you're dealing with what 49-year-old McGuire characterized as "too many old fogies."

Hopefully, the old fogies like the heat because McGuire contends Leisure World is 5 degrees hotter than usual due to lost shade.

Quinlan laughed when she heard the heat-wave allegation and then asked incredulously, "Are we supposed to do something about the weather, too?"

She can laugh until the crows come home, but the tree trimming has become a hot topic in the Leisure World News. A letter from Mary Emma Eriksen in the June 6 issue, under the inflammatory headline "Sap Spills Like Blood," calls for an independent study of the trimming. That brought an avalanche of letters—and by "avalanche," I mean two—that also criticized the lost trees and foliage.

To be fair, there has also been a wave of letters defending the board—and by "wave," I mean one. Fred Ridge, a Leisure World resident and former landscape director for Professional Community Management (PCM), the company hired by Golden Rain to maintain the community, wrote that the firm already employs certified arborists and tree trimmers and that the work has been necessary ever since a 1978 windstorm downed many trees and limbs, presenting a liability issue.

Countered Sparks, "These trees have been here all this time. Why are they now sick and have to come down? If it's because of concerns about liability and whether this could happen or that could happen, you could get rid of all kinds of things with that approach."

The Tree Huggers theorize that the trimming is really being done now and so extensively to generate more money for PCM through the sale of compost. Before you write that off as unfounded paranoia, consider that the California Integrated Waste Management Board's website lists PCM-Leisure World as a source of compost for sale in Orange County.

"This is just another one of these big-business takeover-type things going on all over the world," Sparks said. "Profit: that's what it smells like this is."

The compost-for-profit allegation elicited another laugh from Quinlan.

"Oh, my gosh! Well, that's another case of faulty reasoning," she said. "There is a compost operation that benefits our garden facilities, which are open to residents. But the compost includes all kinds of things; it is not limited to just tree branches. Some of what's composted comes from our stables.

"We've got to get rid of the material somehow. . . . We're probably contributing to the environment more than some developments that would just discard things in trash containers."

Tree Huggers Anonymous was no longer underground as of July 18. That's when Leisure World News broke the story "Tree Huggers Want to be Heard." Reporter Cheryl Walker detailed how a group of concerned residents think it's unfair that the landscape committee can unilaterally decide to remove the trees that everyone shares. Without Sparks' consent or knowledge, the News printed her phone number. She says she received a flood of calls—all positive.

"There are people who are really afraid of retaliation if they're visible and vocal because that has happened in the past," Sparks said. "Someone told me, 'You are fighting an industry.' This is something beyond Leisure World's walls."

Most said they were heartened to learn someone was screaming for the trees.

"Everyone felt alone with their anguish," she said. "From my personal experience, I've lived here since last year, and I used to love going out walking among the trees. Now I'm afraid that I'll go out and find a murdered friend here or a mutilated friend there. It's not just the wonderful, soul-revitalizing experience it used to be."

McGuire also appreciates bonding with nature. She used to be a Republican until she began fighting developers in Topanga Canyon years ago. An awakening environmental consciousness led her to a book by Al Gore, and she's been a Democrat and in love with him ever since. Her love for trees and birds and bunnies came with her when she moved into her mother's Leisure World bungalow in 1993.

"Ten years ago, when they called this place 'Seizure World,' I laughed because it was funny," she says. "It's not funny anymore because of what's going on here."

It's tough to get a fix on how many of her neighbors share that view. Several residents would not speak about the issue. Or maybe they couldn't hear the doorbell when I rang.

To hear Quinlan tell it, they probably weren't home.

"We have 19,000 people, and most of them are busy and active every day doing the things they couldn't do before they retired—playing golf, swimming, riding horses," she said. "I don't want to leave the impression that micromanaging problems is all that residents have to do here. Most people are too busy to do that."


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