Tree Sitter Forced Out of Old Oak

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and firefighters used an aerial ladder and chain-breaking tools Friday night to remove tree sitter John Quigley from the old oak tree he has occupied since Nov. 1.

Holding a folded American flag in one hand, Quigley smiled and waved to bystanders as he rode the ladder to the ground. Sheriff's deputies said he would be escorted off the property, but not arrested.

"I said they'd have to come and drag me out, and they did," Quigley said.

"It's not over yet ... This is about participating in democracy. It's time we all got off our couches and took a stand in what we believe in."

The action came hours after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Quigley to end his months-long effort to save the tree that stands in the path of the Santa Clarita Valley's suburban development boom.

As protesters booed and children sang "This Land Is Your Land," a firetruck hoisted a platform ladder near Quigley's temporary home high in the branches shortly before 9 p.m. An official on the ladder maneuvered through the foliage and handed him the judge's court order.

"They're going to enforce the eviction order," Deputy Richard Westin said. "He's going to have to come down."

But Quigley had chained himself to branches to make it more difficult for officials to remove him.

Sheriff's deputies clambered from the ladder into the tree, carrying with them tools they used to cut through chains and a locking device that Quigley had used to secure himself to the oak.

The process took more than an hour. Quigley could be seen chatting with the deputies as they cut him loose. About 11 p.m., the deputies placed him in a large basket attached to the end of the ladder and he was lowered to the ground.

During a court session Friday morning, Judge John P. Shook had ordered deputies to evict Quigley for trespassing.

The judge's ruling came after a hastily arranged morning showdown in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom between Quigley's attorney and lawyers for developer John Laing Homes, who requested a temporary restraining order to remove the activist from the tree. The homebuilder argued Quigley was trespassing -- and that time was running out for a solution.

By nightfall, a tense chill had settled into Pico Canyon as supporters massed outside fences erected Thursday when the tree sitter was cut off from food, supplies and friends.

The experienced protester said he would remain in the tree that residents have nicknamed "Old Glory." Arborists estimate the oak is 150 to 400 years old.

"I'm standing firm, and assessing the situation," Quigley said Friday afternoon from a cell phone. "I'll be in the tree until I've looked at all the options."

His attorney, Anthony Zinnanti, had said he would try to obtain an emergency stay Monday from California's 2nd District Court of Appeal. But, Zinnanti said, "It's a very slim shot that I will prevail in this."

Laing, which is building a nearby subdivision, must widen the two-lane road that runs alongside the oak as part of an agreement with Los Angeles County. The company has proposed moving the tree to a nearby park -- an action that environmentalists say would kill the tree. But attorneys for the developer successfully argued that, in the short run, it is Quigley who is endangering the tree because the moving operation must begin by Wednesday, while its root system remains dormant for the winter.

Otherwise, Laing attorney Edward Galloway argued, the company would have to wait until fall, which could mean nine more months of traffic-clogging curiosity seekers, TV cameras and other disturbances to a neighborhood that has been the center of a national media circus since Quigley shinnied up the trunk Nov. 1.

Because Laing owns the land, the company was concerned it might have been liable if the 42-year-old activist or his supporters were harmed in a fall, Galloway said.

"If this man is allowed to stay in this tree ... there's going to be a lot of harm to my client," Galloway told the judge.

Zinnanti mounted a complex legal challenge to the developer's motion. But the judge was unimpressed.

"There is no question here that [Laing] is the owner of the property in question," Shook said. "They have the right to do what they wish to do with it."

Environmentalists were caught off guard by the latest salvo in what has become a dramatic battle over the pace of growth in Southern California's suburbs.

Laing's attorneys informed Quigley of their court hearing via cellular phone Thursday morning. They had tried to use tree-climbers to personally serve him with a legal notice, but Quigley would not let them get close enough to hand him the papers, Galloway said.

Lynne Plambeck, president of the environmental group Santa Clarita Organization for Planning the Environment, accused Laing's team of taking advantage of the fact that the activists' main attorney was recovering from serious injuries from Monday's commuter train crash in Burbank.

Plambeck said her group -- which is suing Laing for alleged fraud and breach of contract over the tree -- had to scramble to find another lawyer.

Plambeck was also angry that the judge did not give environmentalists an opportunity to argue against Laing's tree-moving plan.

She said tree supporters consulted a number of arborists and other experts who say the oak has a slim chance of surviving a move -- a complicated procedure that would cost $250,000 and take about three months.

Quigley's girlfriend, Susan Cox, agreed. "It's disappointing that the judge didn't hear all the merits of the case," she said. "That this was rushed shows the lack of consideration."

The developer's concerns over timing were underscored in green this week, as tufts of leaves appeared along the oak's broad branches after a spate of rain.

On Friday, security guards milled around the base of the tree, where Quigley's ground crew once camped out. They refused to send up care packages from supporters, but at one point they shuttled a few legal documents from Zinnanti to Quigley and back.

Some supporters were gathered 500 feet away, behind one of the new fences the developer erected. Others moved around the edge of the fence to get closer, or looked on from the cliff on the eastern side of narrow Pico Canyon.

By afternoon, Quigley, an environmental educator, said he was eating less than usual in hopes of stretching his food supply for a week or so. He was also limiting interviews to limit the drain on cellular phone batteries.

Outside of court, Zinnanti called his client a hero, and even Laing attorney Stacy McDaniel praised Quigley for his beliefs.

But, she added, "While we respect Mr. Quigley's ideals, he has no right to enforce those ideals in the manner he chose."

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Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, Wendy Thermos, Akilah Johnson and Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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