Death of tree leaves family void

Couple sues builder, developer in demise of centuries-old oak

October 12, 1999|By Jamal E. Watson | Jamal E. Watson,SUN STAFF

Six-year-old Victoria Myers just couldn't stop crying, and neither could her parents.

Almost two years after they moved into their Scaggsville home, the Myerses spent yesterday watching a private contractor cut down their most prized possession -- a 250-year-old white oak tree that stood 70 feet tall in their yard.

"This is a very sad day," said Denise Myers, 34, who moved into the home with her husband, Grant, 38, in October 1997. "We built the house so that we could enjoy the beauty of the tree. But the tree had to come down -- it's been dead for a while."

After spending months searching for the right place to build their home, they found themselves returning to a piece of farmland east of U.S. 29 and Route 216, where they noticed the huge white oak that their daughter later named Kiki.

"I fell in love with the tree the moment that I saw it," said Grant Myers, who instructed the builder, Trinity Custom Homes, to revise the downstairs floor plan to ensure that windows in the family room faced the tree.

"We built everything around her," Grant Myers said. "Now, it's like losing a part of the family."

They discovered that the tree was dead shortly after moving into their new home. The cause, they say, was negligence by the builder and the developer during construction in June 1997.

In a lawsuit seeking $75,000 that was filed in Howard County Circuit Court this summer, the couple contend Trinity Custom Homes and Severtsen/Gillen Property Partnerships failed to properly maintain the tree while the home was being built.

"There are a lot of things that they should've done, that they didn't do," said Denise Myers, who added that she believes the tree's root system was disturbed, subjecting it to "major stress."

The couple said they contacted the builder and the developer with the goal of reaching a compromise. They said they wanted financial compensation for being sold a dead tree -- especially after a recent appraisal indicated the tree was worth $60,000. They also wanted the builder and developer to pay for the cost of having it removed.

"The tree is the only reason why we purchased this home," said Grant Myers, thumbing through pictures that he and his wife took of bulldozers and construction crews placing dirt near the white oak tree while they were building the home.

He said the pictures will be used as evidence when the case goes to trial.

"These [pictures] were supposed to be memories, not legal defenses," he said.

Their lawsuit states that Howard County designated the area around the tree a forest conservation easement -- meaning that activities directly affecting the life of the tree were forbidden.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of Howard County's Department of Planning and Zoning, was unavailable to comment yesterday.

Michael Ball, a spokesman for the developer, said he would not comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

The Myerses said efforts to reach a compromise were called off after talks broke down.

"They said that they would pay us $15,000, and we came back with $35,000," Grant Myers said. "They refused to move, so our lawyer said, `We'll see you in court.' "

The couple said they've accumulated a bundle of expenses, including $2,500 to have the tree removed.

"We just had to do it," Denise Myers said. "The recent hurricane gave the tree a severe beating. If we didn't have her cut down, it could really do some damage. We have two children, and there are other children in the neighborhood."

The loss has been hardest on Victoria, who spent hours on end playing underneath the majestic oak.

"She would talk so affectionately about her tree," Denise Myers said. "Everyone at her school thought Kiki was her grandmother, because Victoria would tell them that after school she was going to go home and play with Kiki.

"Now Kiki is gone. It's very sad."

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