Paving Paradise

Nearby residents fume after a developer destroys a large tree near the Rillito River Park

Chirping frantically as if protesting the recent destruction of their home, hundreds of small birds eerily swirled around the remains of a large Chilean mesquite tree piled next to the Rillito River Park near Campbell Avenue. Perched high above them, a hawk peered down from a nearby enormous power pole.

Leslie Meigs, 53, was in tears looking over the devastation of the once-magnificent, wide-spreading tree and other vegetation which occupied a now-barren dirt lot. "Cactus wrens, finches, doves, owls and quail lived here," says the nearby resident, "along with hundreds of cactus, kangaroo rats, snakes and field mice. This was a wonderful, beautiful little environment. But now there's nothing."

Complaining about the persistent dust which has been created by periodic construction activity, Meigs dances around a question concerning the destruction of vegetation required to build her own home. But she does observe: "Everybody wants preserved land behind them, except developers."

Meigs also wonders about a governmental system which not long ago installed new vegetation and landscape material along the River Park pedestrian path on the east side of Campbell, but allowed the removal of mature vegetation to the west.

Situated in back of a Trader Joe's, the triangular-shaped lot next to Meigs' townhouse is slated to have three, two-story office buildings built on it. Developer Adam Karon hopes the buildings will be under construction by the end of May, and he stresses that he tried to save the mesquite tree.

"I made every attempt not to take it down," he states emphatically.

Even though he and Meigs don't know one another except through this incident, they call each other nasty names at every opportunity while agreeing on only one thing--the tree was a remarkable specimen.

"It was a nice tree, and I like trees," Karon acknowledges. He additionally points out that as part of the development process, he deeded not only some land for the River Park, but also some of the Rillito Creek itself, to Pima County.

Karon says storm drainage from the Trader Joe's and new office buildings will flow through a wide trough, entering a concrete scupper installed under the River Park's walkway before the water empties into the riverbed. Construction of the scupper required removing the tree, but Karon admits it didn't have to happen that way.

"The tree came down because the scupper was designed by an engineer who never saw the tree," he says, believing the drainage plan was done without a site visit. About the tree, Karon stresses: "It's not endangered, and it isn't one that needs to be saved under the city of Tucson's native plant preservation ordinance."

Stating its intent is "to encourage preservation-in-place of healthy native plants through sensitive site design," the local law lists only two types of mesquites worth saving from development-related destruction. Meigs feels it is time for that concept to be broadened.

"The tree was there for up to 60 years," she says, "and was there for the whole atmosphere of the River Park walk." Supporting leaving significant vegetation alone, she "absolutely" believes trees like the Chilean mesquite should be preserved.

For his part, Karon guesses the tree was probably installed about 20 years ago and grew so large because it was irrigated. A photo from the air of the site from 1986 doesn't provide an answer about the age of the doomed mesquite, but it does show a string of large trees in the area.

Elaborating on why the tree was cut down, Karon continues: "The first design plan (for the site) didn't have a scupper, and water flowed over the walk, but the Pima County Parks Department said no."

After the design was changed, Karon remembers: "Three months ago, my contractor said to install the scupper. The tree had to go."

Karon says he asked about moving the scupper a few feet in order to save the tree. "Pima County officials said if I did that, I'd have to go through the plan-approval process again.

"I contacted the adjacent homeowner's association about moving the scupper over 5 feet," Karon recalls, "which would encroach on their property. They wanted legal documents, which meant more time and money. I spent thousands of dollars and months on engineering. How much should I pay to save a planted tree?"

Admitting hindsight is a lot clearer, Karon adds: "The project could have been designed differently to save the tree and money. If I had known where I'd end up, I might have started differently."

Richard Dooley, a regular user of the River Park path, calls the whole episode "frustrating." He agrees with Meigs that the tree appeared to be about 60 years old by its size.

"Developers run this town," Dooley says. "Karon may have been within his rights, but it's really unfortunate."

Karon points out he planted 52 trees on the Trader Joe's property, and will be installing lots of additional trees around the new office complex. Plans on file with the city show these trees will include 10, 15-gallon cottonwoods along the edge of the River Park path, and nine similarly sized velvet mesquites next to the adjacent townhouse complex where Meigs lives.

But the Arizona native doesn't plan on being there much longer.

"It's a shame developers own the city and county governments," Meigs says. "People are sick of it, and I can't stand what's going on. All I want to do is sell my home and leave, because I'm disgusted. I'm gone from Tucson."

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