Jeff Jardine

Jardine: They came, sawed and conquered 100-year-old Modesto tree

When Angel Gomez and his wife went house hunting in Modesto in 2010, the big valley oak in the back yard sealed the deal.

“My wife didn’t like the house at all,” he said. “But when we looked at it a second time, it was, like, 110 degrees that day and (the yard) was so nice and shady.”

So they bought the home and, for a while, thoroughly enjoyed living beneath the canopy of the century-old tree. Neighbor John Fusselman said it is the so-called Lincoln Oak for which the street running alongside the Gomez home is named. The magnificent, stately oak already stood about 40 feet tall long before the neighborhood’s first homes were constructed in the early 1980s.

But shortly after Gomez his family moved in, the tree began to undermine them. Their toilets and drains began backing up. Gomez summoned a plumber who told him the tree’s expansive root system went looking for water and found it inside his sewer line. The massive tree also shed leaves on his roof, and the big thick limbs hung ominously both over the house and the sidewalk along Lincoln Oak Drive.

His dilemma? Pay a few thousand bucks now to have the tree removed or perhaps $12,000 to have the sewer line replaced – more if it damaged the foundation. Simply trimming the tree wouldn’t help. The roots had already created small cracks in the pipe, he said.

“I went to the city and they told me it wasn’t a heritage tree,” Gomez said.

Indeed, the tree wasn’t listed among Modesto’s biggest in a 1997 Bee story on that very topic. He could remove it without a permit. Wednesday morning, a tree service crew arrived and began sawing away . Within minutes, some neighbors called the city.

Fusselman, a 30-year neighborhood resident, called The Bee not to complain about the tree coming down, but only, he said, in hopes a photographer would get one last shot of the big oak for posterity.

“It’s a piece of our heritage,” he said. “It’s worthy to note the end of an era. It’s a magificent tree.”

All that aside, he’d make the same call, Fusselman said as he pointed out a cut piece of wood rotted to its core atop a pile.

“I wouldn’t want to live under it,” he said. “Would you?”

When other residents came out and began taking photos and videos, it sort of spooked the tree trimmers. They called Gomez to make absolutely, positively, 100 percent certain they were to remove the tree and not merely restyle it.

No, he told them, he wanted it removed – as in gone. The damage caused by the roots is just the beginning. And it is – or was – his tree on his property. It wasn’t in a park. It didn’t belong to the city. The house was built in 1985. Gomez didn’t buy it until 25 years later.

Anyone who owned the home would have to deal with the root intrusion at some point.

The drought of the past four years certainly didn’t help. Numerous trees throughout the region, including others in the neighborhood, have died because they just weren’t getting enough water. Watering restrictions put into place last summer didn’t allow enough water for many lawns to survive, let alone big trees. And now that we’ve gotten some rain, the root systems are soaking up whatever they can.

The tree service people told me they have seen an uptick in the number of calls they’ve received to remove broken branches and limbs – again, the result of years of minimal water making some branches more brittle, and now getting more water due to the rain, making them heavier.

Gomez said he appreciates that the beautiful old tree greeted residents as they entered the neighborhood. But its presumed age isn’t something that matters to him now because it is damaging his home.

“I was born 33 years ago,” he said. “Not 200 years ago. How long that tree’s been in the city or in that particular spot – don’t know, don’t care.”

So by Wednesday afternoon, it sat stacked in pieces between the sidewalk and the fence along Lincoln Oak Drive. Tree-trimmer Jamen Michael Bradshaw said he’d leave it there for anyone to pick up, but they’d better enjoy splitting big pieces of wood.

“In a couple of weeks, we’ll come back and haul off what’s left,” Bradshaw said.

Gomez and his family, meanwhile, can deal with a bit more sunshine to save their sewer line and their savings.