Elise Sharon talks about these trees like they were family. She mourns them, the way a person might mourn a loved one.
And, similar to the way a distraught mother might react to the murder of a child, Sharon, 82, demands justice. As she does so, she looks out on her expansive, wooded, waterfront property, zeroing in on the spot near the southern point of her yard where eight tall maple trees are now splayed out like sticks, slicked by the early morning saltwater fog.
The trees — once 80 to 100 feet tall, she recalls, and nearly a century old — were unceremoniously cut down over two days in July. Sharon vividly remembers the sound of the spewing chainsaws catching her by surprise and the feeling of “shock and horror” when the reality of what was happening hit her.
It was the beginning of a long, litigious saga that, six months later, still has Sharon searching for answers and solace. In the process, it’s entangled the local railway company, ensnared a local tree cutting business and driven an intractable wedge between neighbors.
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In many ways, the situation is complicated, relying on inexact maps, recollections of conversations past and the precise rule of law.
In other ways, it’s surprisingly simple.
Lawyering aside — because that will play out in due time — the story of Sharon’s beloved trees boils down to a straightforward question: Morally and ethically, who has the right to a view and how far should they be allowed to go to get it?
A view and a dispute
The noise began on the morning of July 12, Sharon recalls.
The sound of chainsaws ripping through woody tree flesh instantly caught her attention, and she instinctively knew where to look.
Sharon quickly focused on the southern portion of her property — and the BNSF right of way — where eight maple trees had long been an item of contention between her and her neighbors to the south.
It’s here that David and Marla Hendrickson live. The couple purchased a breathtaking parcel on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Narrows and Fox Island from Sharon some three decades ago, and there’s a history there.
At least twice since 2009, the Hendricksons — in letters Sharon provided to The News Tribune — asked for her blessing to have the trees in the BNSF right of way removed.
The first time, in 2009, Sharon offered a resolute no, writing in reply that, “historically (she has) resisted alterations to the natural habitat of my property.”
In January 2017, the Hendricksons wrote again, telling Sharon that they “would like to remove some or all of those trees, but not without your approval.”
This time, Sharon didn’t respond, feeling she’d already made herself clear.
Then, in July, the trees came down — without warning, she says.
So, in October, Sharon filed a lawsuit against the Hendricksons and Ranger Tree Experts, the local company that carried out the work. The lawsuit seeks a host of damages, including relief for “mental suffering.”
According to Jane Koler, Sharon’s attorney, the Hendricksons and Ranger “used deceptive tactics” in an effort to “unjustly enrich themselves,” creating a nuisance for her client in the process.
The Hendricksons’ attorney, Gregory Scott Latendresse, said, as Sharon has, that the trees were clearly on BNSF right of way. Latendresse declined to discuss the case further.
Tax parcel maps and public GIS information back up the contention that the trees were on BNSF right of way, according to Tony De Paul, a GIS Specialist with the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s office.
Citing pending litigation, Micah Glastetter, the owner of Ranger Tree Experts, also declined to comment on the specifics of the work his company billed to the Hendricksons. Speaking broadly, Glastetter did say that his company has cut down trees on BNSF right of way many times in the past and that he always goes by the book.
“I always check before I cut trees, because legally you can get in a whole heap of hot water if you cut a tree that’s on someone else’s land,” Glastetter said.
Reached by The News Tribune, David Hendrickson said he had “been advised not to talk to anybody” about the trees.
Strangely, whether the trees were on BNSF property was a contention railway spokesman Gus Melonas initially contradicted.
Melonas said his company was contacted earlier this year by a representative for a private property owner. The representative, Melonas said, indicated that trees were to be cut near BNSF’s property but not on it.
“It wasn’t our job,” Melonas said when first asked about the tree cutting. The railroad provided a flagger, for safety, he said, but that’s it.
Later, given the dispute, Melonas said the railroad decided to investigate the matter further in an effort to determine whose property the trees actually were on.
On Thursday, that work was completed. Melonas said a site investigation determined the trees were on BNSF property, raising the possibility of repercussions.
“The trees are clearly on BNSF property,” Melonas told The News Tribune Thursday afternoon. “So BNSF internal police and claims department are determining next steps, which could include fines, penalties and possible cleanup.”
Melonas also reiterated Thursday that BNSF was originally led to believe the trees were on private property.
“The party responsible (for the cutting) had indicated that the trees were off BNSF property,” Melonas maintained.
Origins of a sanctuary
To understand Sharon’s love of the eight toppled maple trees, you have to go back to the beginning.
Since 1976, Sharon has lived on an unspoiled plot of land on the shore of the Narrows, just south of Day Island in what today is University Place. She moved here more than 40 years ago from Southern California with her husband and boys.
In 1980, Sharon and her husband separated. She’s lived on the property ever since, she says, watching her boys go off to college and grow into adults.
To find Sharon’s five-bedroom residence, visitors travel down and overgrown driveway off Lemons Beach Road, a winding stretch of pavement named after one of the area’s first families. On a recent Thursday afternoon, she invited me into an ornate living room adorned with a lifetime’s worth of antiques and classical music hanging in the air.
Sharon quickly tells me she loves this house and this land and has spent the last 40 years trying to protect and preserve it.
The jewel of the property, Sharon says, is a garden dating back to the property’s previous owner, Dr. Charles Berry — a local dentist who purchased the land in 1928.
As proof, Sharon pulls a yellowing article out of a folder of paperwork. It’s from the Soundlife section of The News Tribune, dating to June 1975, shortly before Sharon and her husband purchased the property.
The article describes “carloads and busloads of garden club members” stopping in the driveway to “view the wealth of color each spring.”
Much, if not all of the garden, appears to be on BNSF right of way.
The maple trees — which Sharon believes were planted by Dr. Berry — stood as a protective buffer, she says, blocking the wind from the water and helping to create the sanctuary that she fell in love with four decades ago.
Since the trees were cut down, she’s been a “basket case,” Sharon says. She now fears the rest of her garden might be in danger.
“It was something, moving up from Southern California, that was a whole different world for us,” recalls 53-year-old Michael Sharon, one of Elise’s three sons, who’s now an actor in New York.
“It was a huge playground with all of the trees. I remember being out, picking peaches with my dad and my brothers. It was a great place to grow up, and it offered us a place to learn about things like canning fruit and making apple sauce. That was all part of it,” the son continues.
“My mom’s mission all of these years has really been to trying retain that.”
A daily reminder
As we walk toward where the trees formerly stood, two lengths of lattice fencing come into view.
The panels, which now stand awkwardly in the middle of Sharon’s otherwise wide open yard, are erected into a makeshift barrier, designed to obstruct her view of the carnage.
To this day, Sharon says she can’t bear to look at what’s left of the maple trees she loved.
“That was intentional. It was done to me. It was deliberate, when I’d already indicated I didn’t want it done,” Sharon says of the work.
Again with tears in her eyes, she says she views it as a form of abuse.
“It’s adding insult to injury that I’ve got all the trees now lying in a heap,” she says, before retreating inside.