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Tree's Roots in City History All Too Strong

Claim over damaged utility lines puts landmark rubber tree in jeopardy. Owner, preservationists are desperate to save it.


It's a storybook tree, one whose massive folds could easily hide a magical doorway or elf-sized chamber, whose hulking trunk seems ready to yawn open and speak, like the haunted trees Dorothy encountered on her way to Oz.

But for its owners, this Villa Park giant is a little less magic, and a lot more curse.

A neighbor's claim that tree roots have caused extensive damage to underground utility lines has launched a tug of war between an owner eager to stave off potential lawsuits over the century-old rubber tree and historians desperate to preserve a piece of Villa Park history.

"Right now, we don't know what to do," said Norman Smith, who lives on the property with his 89-year-old father, G. Abbott Smith. "We have to do something to fix this."

Safeguards, such as an underground barrier to deflect root growth away from the neighbor's yard, could cost the Smiths $20,000, experts said.

But that may be a small price to pay for saving a historic landmark potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, said arborist Michael Mahoney, who inspected the tree last week. "The tree has an intrinsic value. This is a healthy tree. It's a unique specimen," he said. "There has to be a reasonable fix."

Controversy began several weeks ago when next-door neighbor John Kleinberg filed a $100,000 claim against the Smiths' insurance company, alleging that the tree's roots had damaged his underground utility lines. Kleinberg declined to comment for this story.

Hoping to avoid claims from other neighbors, Norman Smith proposed cutting down the tree. But local history buffs--and G. Abbott Smith--have tried to derail the plans.

"That is the historic tree of Villa Park," said Doug Westfall, an independent Orange County historian and Smith family friend.

Westfall said the tree dates to the late 1800s, when the Smith family pioneered the tiny city. The tree earned a place in the National Register of Historic Properties 20 years ago.

City historian Janet Van Emon said cutting it down would kill an irreplaceable slice of local history. She and a group of other preservationists have pressured Norman Smith to leave it alone. The city has no laws governing tree removal.

"Everyone sort of feels sad about it," Van Emon said.

At this point, no decisions have been made about the rubber tree's fate, but Norman Smith acknowledged that chopping it down would rankle not only community historians but also his aging father.

G. Abbott Smith reminisced last week beneath the tree's sprawling shadow, brushing leaves from the roots like a doting mother and pointing to white scars along the trunk where he'd shot BB pellets at it as a child. "I remember when it was this big," he said, holding his hands about 2 feet apart.

This sentimental value, plus its history, may be reason enough for the Smiths to fork over $20,000 for preventive measures, Mahoney said.

And in light of community concern, the option to cut down the tree is growing more unlikely, Norman Smith said. Plus, he added, "My father wouldn't hear of it."


Renee Moilanen can be reached at (714) 966-4674.

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