Forest-Lovers and Cops Face Off Over Luxury Home Project

·14 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

On Monday morning, a person known as Nuthatch climbed a pine tree inside an urban forest in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to stop a national developer of McMansions from bulldozing hundreds of landmark trees to make room for a subdivision of luxury homes.

“We don’t do this for fun. Certainly, being up here in the canopy and surrounded by the sounds of the forest is a lovely place to be,” Nuthatch said in a dispatch issued from their portaledge. They were temporarily sheltering in a doomed tree inside a future Toll Brothers development called Concord Pines, hoping to stall the destruction. “But please believe me that I wish with all my heart that we could find an easier way besides facing off against police day after day.”

Beneath Nuthatch’s perch were workers with Toll Brothers’ contractor, William J. Lang Land Clearing, a gaggle of Ann Arbor cops, and fellow protesters with the group FIGHT Concord Pines, who bore witness and served as backup for the bird-christened agitator.

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In the days before Nuthatch set up shop, their buddies Osprey, Spider, and Woodthrush had separately chained themselves to construction equipment to stall the imminent ruin. “This is not OK and we can’t just sit idly by while wetlands and forests are being destroyed and silly ticky-tacky mansions are being built in their place,” Woodthrush, who was arrested after the fire department cut their chains, told The Daily Beast.

The ongoing protests at the 32-acre site—once home to 447 landmark trees, 311 of which are being chopped down alongside 450 smaller woodland counterparts—have resulted in the arrests of at least four demonstrators for misdemeanor trespassing. They’ve also drawn support from the city’s nature lovers, neighbors who once hiked the forest’s trails with their children, and a vocal minority of city council members opposed to the project.

One morning in late March, a dozen demonstrators gathered at the site and brandished signs that declared “Habitable Earth = No More Luxury Developments” and “Ann Arbor” with the “Arbor” crossed out. Cars honked as they passed the scene, though one motorist was less than enthusiastic, yelling from his gray pickup truck, “They’re just trees!”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Niki Williams</div>
Niki Williams

But even the destruction of a lesser urban forest has touched off a massive controversy in the leafy college town. It also sparked a short-lived turf war between the protesters and employees of the contractor, one of whom allegedly sprayed Spider with water when she was chained to machinery in frigid weather. An employee of the contractor has also been following FIGHT’s Facebook presence, reacting to many of their posts with a laughing emoji. On his own page, the worker shared a link to a report by MLive.com, which has been covering the protests. “A good way to get bad attention,” the employee wrote. “No worries lady, I actually made it to work today so Uncle Sam can send you an unemployment check. Have some respect for yourself and other people’s property.”

Concordia University could not be reached by press time, and William J. Lang Land Clearing didn't return messages left by The Daily Beast.

Toll Brothers declined to comment outside of a statement vowing to plant new trees in the area. “We believe that sustainability and preservation of the natural environment are integral to building exceptional homes and communities,” the developer said. “Our plans include preserving and replanting over 1,350 trees onsite, and contributing over $300,000 to the City of Ann Arbor Tree Fund and Parks & Recreation Department for the planting of additional trees in the area. Toll Brothers has a long history of working with the City of Ann Arbor to create new homes for families in a way that is environmentally responsible, and has participated in multiple public hearings on this community to give everyone an opportunity to provide input.”

FIGHT Concord Pines launched in early January, after the luxury subdivision was already a foregone conclusion. Concordia University sold the land to Toll Brothers for $4.9 million in March, according to the city planning department. The property transfer was completed a year after the developer presented its plans for 57 luxury homes starting at around $700,000.

According to a slideshow presented to neighbors, the high-end development will include a collection of two-story houses of up to 3,500 square feet and 2,300-square-foot ranch homes. “The site plan leverages the natural attributes of the property—topography, ridgelines, trees, etc,” one slide indicated.

While Concord Pines is a done deal, many residents are angry and still debating whether the city could have fought back against the development somehow, or at least asked Toll Brothers to preserve more of the trees and natural area, which includes wetlands. In one March Facebook post, FIGHT wrote, “There’s countless other forests under threat too. City council said there’s nothing to be done. The market determines what housing gets built. It’s just one small patch of trees, nestled between a highway and some neighborhood. Why protect it? The only reasonable response we can find is… Why not?”

The group has also opposed Concord Pines for replacing forest at a time when Ann Arbor is in dire need of affordable housing. “We deserve good, affordable housing here in our community—not more miniature castles for rich people!” they wrote in January.

According to FIGHT and their sympathizers, the city failed to protect the land, so they stepped in to do something—here, in the form of environmental civil disobedience—to save the habitat for at least a while longer. “This is a more empowering and hopeful way of taking action,” Woodthrush said. “Because of the things we did, those trees lived more days and created more oxygen than they would have, and no city council meeting is going to do that.”

“We have cost them quite a bit of money, gotten them to pay attention, ensured there are consequences for horrible things they're doing,” Woodthrush added of the development. “They just can’t walk away from it when I’m chained to the equipment.”

Another member of the group, Tegwyn John, said, “Every piece of forest is worth protecting. The idea that the only nature that is meaningful is far away in the Amazon or someplace where a white man had a revelatory experience on a mountain 200 years ago and everything else can just be turned into suburban sprawl is not true.”

“The only thing we will have available to us is direct action or doom scrolling and given that choice I think more and more people are going to be choosing direct action,” John continued.

City council member Jeff Hayner told The Daily Beast that Concord Pines is “the exact opposite of what our community needs and deserves.” Last fall, Hayner was one of three city council members who voted against the development. At an April 4 council meeting, Hayner used his allotted speaking time at the beginning of the session to praise the FIGHT protesters publicly: “They’re taking direct action out there… because this body hasn’t had the courage to stand up for what’s right in this community.”

Other city officials argue the issue isn’t so black and white, and that any “no” votes were merely a symbolic gesture. The city council vote was simply an administrative decision on a “by-right” development, they said, so their hands were effectively tied; they had no choice but to approve Toll Brothers’ subdivision because of state zoning laws.

They’ve bristled at public sentiment that they caved to the interests of a luxury developer over the needs of the community.

“When a developer brings a project to the planning commission that is consistent with the zoning for the site and meets all other technical requirements, there is a legal obligation for both planning commission and city council to approve the project,” said council member Lisa Disch, who is the council’s representative on the city’s planning commission.

Disch said that under Michigan state law, city officials cannot force developers to provide affordable housing, green energy features, or make other progressive changes. “Of course it pains anyone to see trees come down for housing and I am not a fan ripping down trees, however, I am a fan of holistic thinking,” she said. “That, to me, is what ecology is, and when you think about an urban ecology and you're thinking about a place like Ann Arbor which is rich in woodlands and short on housing, you have to think about where you’re willing to make trade-offs.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Ron Stempihar</div>
Courtesy of Ron Stempihar

“This city has committed millions of dollars to building affordable housing on city-owned sites, we are thinking holistically about all the challenges we face, it really does not come down to this site. But it does make for good political theater.”

“It is always puzzling to me when people who present themselves as being on the left act as if an administrative decision ought to be something we should be negotiating,” Disch said.

But Hayner disagrees with this assessment. “The courts can be used to negotiate mutually beneficial settlement agreements that override existing zoning laws,” he said. “It’s not just about blocking a project, it’s about working with a developer to get a better project that in this case could have saved more trees and natural features. Saying a project is by-right and that there’s nothing we can do is a lie. And in the meantime we are doing nothing to prevent the next Concord Pines from happening and that’s the tragedy of having a pro-development council majority.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Christopher Taylor told The Daily Beast, “I understand and share regret at the loss of natural areas,” and when pressed on the matter, added, “I do not defend the project for a second.” He said that rejecting Toll Brothers’ plans would have become an expensive legal liability for the city.

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The mayor said the same to MLive.com last week. “If we had rejected the project, then we would have been sued, have paid untold thousands in legal fees, with potentially untold millions in damages, and have been ultimately subject to a court order requiring us to approve the project anyway,” Taylor told the news outlet.

As part of the project, Toll Brothers will plant 1,788 replacement trees on the site, preserve the area’s wetlands, pay the city $265,000 to support the planting of trees elsewhere, and donate $35,625 to the city park system, according to city planning documents.

Still, Woodthrush and their comrades aren’t without support from Ann Arbor residents. “What was good about the activists was that they shed a little light on the project to the community members,” one neighbor, Ron Stempihar, told The Daily Beast. “They were brave in doing so.”

Stempihar says he cared for the pines for years when they were threatened by invasive species and recently took the protesters on a tour through the urban forest’s trails. He said the land was home to a small group of deer, birds, squirrels, and woodchucks and functioned as a barrier between the neighborhood and a freeway, which the new housing development will overlook.

On Thursday and Friday, Stempihar said he was so heartbroken by the sounds of the trees being obliterated that he had to leave his house.

“I’m in mourning. It’s very difficult,” Stempihar said. “It’s really tough when you physically have been in there trying to preserve the property for everyone and for Concordia University. To take down 75-, 100-foot pine trees that have been there for 50-plus years is really a shame.”

“They’re probably going to have to change the name to Concord Pine Stumps,” he quipped.

Another neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous, said that hearing the arbor destruction was “so agonizing, like somebody was killing people.”

The resident said that she and her family recently visited the protesters and that her daughter left the scene crying. “Bless the hearts of these activists,” she told The Daily Beast. “I have nothing but respect for them. They are so amazing that they came out to fight this. And they got nothing out of it. At this point, there wasn’t any option left.”

Woodthrush said they walked through the pines before they were razed and saw an assortment of wildlife, including a fox. “It’s been sad to be on site and watch all the death and destruction,” they said. “The workers take glee in it. That’s the thing that is disturbing to me.”

They said that when they and another forest defender were chained to a mulcher, one worker ordered them to get off the machine. When they replied that they couldn’t, since they were shackled to it, the employee allegedly laughed, announced “It’s really going to hurt,” and turned on the equipment to scare them.

At another point, Woodthrush claimed, a worker sprayed Spider with water in 30-degree weather and tried to yank her off a machine. “The entire time police were on site, letting that happen,” Woodthrush said. “Police are there to protect property and not to protect people.”

Woodthrush says that when they were affixed to the heavy machinery, officers pulled them so hard that they tore a ligament in their shoulder. “We were chained inside a metal pipe and they were just grabbing us and pulling us as hard as we could,” they said. “They’d do that and pause and say, ‘Do you want to let go now?’”

“We were crying, sobbing, begging them to stop. Eventually they gave up and called the fire department, which used saws to cut us out.”

Ann Arbor police Lt. Mike Scherba told The Daily Beast on Thursday that to his knowledge, no one has reported injuries stemming from the protests. “I’m not aware of any protesters reporting injuries to us. They have some kind of social media feed they’ve been putting out,” Scherba said. “There may be conflicting information.”

He added that Michigan State Police used a drone on the site on Wednesday to see if the tree-sitter’s platform had been vacated. Once they confirmed the environmental activist was gone, the construction company felled the tree.

“I can tell you from what I’ve witnessed and heard, I think the construction company is as upset with the police department as the protesters,” Scherba said. “They want us to do more. We’re in the middle and can’t win. We’re doing what we can legally do.”

“When we had an individual up in the tree, they were demanding we take action,” Scherba added of the contractor. “We have to use common sense and good judgment. We’re not going to climb a tree and get somebody. Worst case scenario, we physically move someone 50 feet in the air. That’s a potential hazard for somebody and not something we’re willing to do.”

Scherba said that the construction company hired private security to keep an eye on the site earlier this week. “Personally, if you ask me, I don’t think it’s over,” Scherba said of the tree-hugging resistance. “Potentially even when all the trees are gone.”

The officer said that Ann Arbor hasn’t seen anyone take residence in a tree to stop its demolition, at least in recent memory.

Nuthatch’s sit-in ended Tuesday night, when a construction worker began cutting trees next to their canopy and one hit their platform when it fell. Police apprehended forest defenders supporting Nuthatch at the scene, and the activist eventually came down.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy of Ron Stempihar</div>
Courtesy of Ron Stempihar

In a statement released two days later, Nuthatch said this frightening near-miss occurred around 6:15 p.m., after normal work hours. “I implore you to join our fight. The fact that people are willing to kill me and my friends for what we are doing just shows how threatened they feel,” Nuthatch said. “There are so many ways to fight beyond sitting in trees. I promise that even in the midst of the fear and chaos, the knowledge that you are defending the forest and fighting for good will give you all the strength you need.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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