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Originally published September 9, 2012 at 9:02 PM | Page modified September 9, 2012 at 10:09 PM

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Tree fosters dispute over what's a good neighbor

Retired Seattle Mariners player and Clyde Hill resident John Olerud wants his neighbor across the street, the Rev. Bruce Baker, to cut down a tree that partially blocks his view of the Seattle skyline.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Take, for instance, the Chinese pine across the street from retired baseball star John Olerud's Clyde Hill home.

John and Kelly Olerud see an eyesore that blocks the view of the Seattle skyline from their new, custom-built home.

The owners of the pine, Bruce and Linda Baker, see the natural beauty of a rare tree that stands sentinel over the family's backyard patio.

Olerud, a former Seattle Mariner, one-time American League batting champ and three-time Gold Glove winner, has been asking the Bakers for more than two years if he can pay to have the tree cut down.

For two-plus years, the Bakers have refused.

Now the Oleruds want the Clyde Hill Board of Adjustment to order their neighbors to cut down the tree, saying it unreasonably obstructs the view from their $4 million property facing Lake Washington, Seattle and the Olympic Mountains.

The tree, with a 2-foot-thick trunk, was there long before the Oleruds built their home.

The conflict has strained the relationship of two men who have been in each other's homes, coached their sons' soccer team together, and put their Christian faith at the center of their lives.

The Oleruds lived in the Bakers' house for eight months in 2008 and 2009 while the Oleruds were building their own 6,680-square-foot home and Bruce Baker was working on his doctorate at Scotland's University of St. Andrews.

Through it all, the families have been cordial and have wrestled with what it means to be a good neighbor.

"I'm trying to do the right thing," Baker said. "Having protracted arguments with neighbors is not the right thing — I'm aware of that. And I hoped to avoid that. I also have other neighbors that I'm trying to be a neighbor to who value the surroundings here. They have trees and they don't want my trees taken down."

Baker, formally the Rev. Dr. Baker, calls Olerud "a good man" and says he admires his ability to remain civil despite their disagreement.

Olerud, who declined to be interviewed, said at a Board of Adjustment hearing he couldn't understand why Baker wouldn't help his neighbors open up the same "amazing view" Baker enjoys.

After all, Olerud said, the Bakers maintain their own view by trimming smaller trees on the lake side of their property.

In Clyde Hill, a city of almost 3,000 between Bellevue and Medina, property values are closely associated with views.

The city says it was the first in the area and one of the first in the nation to adopt a process for condemning trees that block too much of neighbors' sunlight or scenic views.

To date, no tree has been cut under that 20-year-old law. Port Orchard and Medina also authorize trees to be cut to preserve views.

Good neighbor?

Olerud doesn't think much of the Chinese pine, shorter and fuller than the towering Douglas firs nearby. Baker has agreed to remove a Colorado spruce behind the pine.

"You guys saw the trees," Olerud said at the board hearing. "They're not attractive trees. I would say they're the kind of tree that only an arborist would love. ...

"I'm just making the point that if you're willing to cut down your own trees to maintain your view and yet you aren't willing to offer that to your neighbor, how is that being a good neighbor?

"The Bible says, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.' That's Jesus' commandment."

To which Baker replied, "I truly believe you're trying to be a good neighbor. That's what's so puzzling about this, that you think it's being a good neighbor to cut down a tree that's important to me that's over 50 years old, and just leave a hole there."

Olerud said he would be willing to buy a replacement tree that wouldn't block his view.

In an effort to placate Olerud, Baker cut down a small coast redwood, agreed to remove the spruce and had the pine pruned in a way intended to allow some of the viewscape to show through. But he wasn't willing to cut down a tree that his arborist called very rare and valued at $18,000.

To obtain a tree-cutting order under the "view obstruction and tree removal" ordinance, Olerud must show that his view is unreasonably blocked, that the obstruction decreases his enjoyment of his property, and that removing the tree wouldn't unreasonably decrease Baker's enjoyment of his property.

Religious links

Baker, 55, co-founder of a company sold to Hewlett-Packard and later a Microsoft manager, answered a midlife call to the ministry. He is now a Seattle Pacific University professor of business ethics and has served on the pastoral teams at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle and First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue.

Christian faith is also important to Olerud, 44, a graduate of Bellevue's Interlake High School. After his daughter, Jordan, was born in 2000 with a chromosomal disorder, he gave credit to God, his family and Antioch Bible Church in Redmond for helping him and Kelly deal with the difficult medical and emotional challenges.

Olerud wasn't the only person who brought up religion during a Board of Adjustment hearing last month following a visit by the board to the two homes.

Nancy Dammkoehler, a neighbor who spoke at the hearing, said the Oleruds are reasonable people and scolded Baker: "All they want is to see the top of the Space Needle. If you can't figure this out, boy, I tell you, you'd better find a different line of work, buddy, because you're not very Christian."

Neighbors Joel and Nanci Richards stuck to more secular reasoning when they wrote that if the Bakers are forced to cut down the pine, "we should rename Clyde Hill to 'Bald Hill,' because no tree will be safe from a piece of someone's view."

Few cases

The dispute is only the third of its kind to come before the Board of Adjustment since 1991, when the tree-removal ordinance was adopted after a public advisory vote. In an earlier straw poll, a majority of residents said they would be willing to cut their trees if asked.

One of the previous cases was settled before the board ruled, and in the other the board spared a beech that a neighbor wanted cut down.

Before Olerud filed his complaint with the city, he talked repeatedly with Baker, sought the city arborist's advice and went through King County-sponsored mediation.

The tree law, intended to balance the benefits of trees with the importance of views, has worked well because it requires residents to try to work things out with each other before asking the city to intervene, City Administrator Mitch Wasserman says.

"To me that was the wisdom of the regulations to begin with," Wasserman said. "If you want to live within a neighborhood, you probably need to resolve these issues on a neighborly voluntary basis. We as a city will help."

The Board of Adjustment is expected to make a decision in November if the neighbors don't reach an agreement.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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