Spring goes Lorax on lawyer/landlord over “poisoned” willow

Speaking, and suing, for the trees. (photo-illustration/Sean Wilkinson)

Spring goes Lorax on lawyer/landlord over “poisoned” willow

By Chris Busby

Last year, Portland School Committee member Stephen Spring watched the “huge, beautiful” willow tree in the corner of his yard on Valley Street wither and die. Spring, a member of the Green Independent Party, suspected the willow was poisoned.

Come spring of this year, the tree failed to leaf, so Spring approached the manager of the multi-unit building adjacent to his lot seeking to reach the building’s owner. The manager refused to tell Spring the owner’s name, he said, so he gave the manager his contact information with a request that the owner call him within two weeks.

When two weeks passed with no reply, Spring got the owner’s name and mailing address through public records at City Hall. He also contacted city arborist Jeff Tarling and Mike Nugent, manager of the city’s code enforcement program. 

In a letter he sent last May to Frances Jackson, an attorney who owns the multi-unit building next to his lot, Spring said a “strong chemical” used to kill bamboo and other weeds in the multi-unit’s yard had also killed his willow and half a dozen trees on Jackson’s parcel. 

“My preference continues to be that we can work out how to test the soil, clear the dead trees, and figure out a way to replant,” Spring wrote. “I am interested in figuring this out together so we can bring back the beautiful shade and foliage that was once in our yards and to prevent dead trees from falling on homes and people.”

According to Spring, Jackson responded with a letter asserting that the fate of the trees was not his responsibility. After a subsequent phone conversation also failed to resolve the issue, Spring said he felt court action was his only recourse. 

So, on Sept. 18, Spring and Jackson faced off in small claims court – the first time Spring had ever pursued such a claim, he said. Jackson “cited all this law stuff and said he didn’t know about any poison being used,” Spring wrote in an e-mail to The Bollard after his court appearance. “I showed before and after pictures of the willow tree.”

Spring was requesting $435 to remove the willow, test the soil, replant a tree and cover his court costs. The judge directed the parties to try to mediate the dispute, and during that session Jackson “scoffed,” Spring said, and offered $300 “‘just to get this over with.'” Spring countered with $400, and Jackson “grudgingly agreed,” he said.

Jackson did not return a call seeking comment.

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