Neighbors tangle over cutting huge 100-year-old banyan tree branches


West Palm Beach neighbors quarrel over trimming century-old banyan tree

Bongsoon Zubay moved to 124 Monroe Drive in 2011 in the Southland Park neighborhood and almost from the start got after her backyard neighbors about trimming their banyan tree, which hangs over her house.

It isn’t just any banyan. It’s at least 100 years old and creates such a magnificent canopy over the yellow, two-story home of Amy Young and Ricardo Grimes that the ceramic sign on their driveway post announces the name of the property at 3609 Washington Road as Casa Del Arbol. Tree house.

It’s of the same scale as the banyan that the Norton Museum of Art, a couple of miles away, had a Pritzker Prize-winning architect incorporate into the building’s $100 million renovation.

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“It’s a beautiful tree,” Grimes said Wednesday.

Zubay, though, a retired educator, considers the tree a hurricane hazard. During Hurricane Irma in September, she said, one of its branches snapped and poked a hole in her roof, letting water rush in.

She’s not looking for money — she paid for the repairs and she will cover the trimming costs, too, she said.

The hang-up was that her neighbors, tired of her relentless complaints, antagonism and lawyer’s letters, refused her permission to enter their yard to undertake the work. They recognized her right to trim branches draping over her property but didn’t feel obligated to make it easy.

RELATED: In urban West Palm Beach, tree lovers complete with building boom

“My fear was, letting her on our property was like letting my ex-girlfriend cut my hair,” Ricardo Grimes explained. “She hates me. I’m not going to let her cut my hair. I don’t think so.”

So on Wednesday, orange traffic cones narrowed Washington to one lane to make room for a hydraulic “Ultraboom” lift with a 125-foot extension arm that could rise from the public roadway, over Zubay’s hedge to the top of the tree, to trim without trespassing.

Dave Habeck, the hard-hatted, reflective-vest-wearing owner of tree-trimmers Ultimate Environments, admired the banyan and its expansive canopy and estimated its age at more than 100 years.

He was holding a weight on a string, called a plumb bob. His crew would tie the string to a high branch and let the weight hang down to mark off the property boundary, to make sure they didn’t trim past it. “It’s my grandfather’s plumb bob,” he smiled.

He was perhaps also smiling because the job would pay more than $7,000, he said. Renting the boom cost $2,500 for the day. Hiring a road crew from Bob’s Barricades to set up the cones and direct traffic cost just under $2,000. The city permit and labor costs also factored in.

Zubay figured that when all was said and done she’d be paying $8,000. It would have been half that, if only the crew could have driven onto her neighbors’ yard, she said.

Grimes and Young say they’ve trimmed the tree on their side every year or so and pay about that much each time, because the tree means so much to them. They’ve told Zubay that if there’s a hurricane, a branch could blow from anywhere, even if the banyan is trimmed, Grimes added.

“My wife and I attempted to be friends with our neighbor,” he said. “I personally cleaned the entire rooftop of her home to try to put out the olive branch,” he added. “Her husband passed away and my wife went over there and took food, and this was at a time when she was very aggressive toward us, and tried to patch things over, and it did for a while.

“Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, she got this thing in her head again that she had to cut this tree. If she had ever attempted to talk to us with some amount of respect, we would have responded in kind. We talk to her with civility anyway.”

Instead, she’s sending lawyer letters and calling the media, he said.

“She’s a person we found very difficult to get along with, so we decided not to bother.” Grimes said. “You do your thing, we’ll do our thing and we no longer want to have a relationship.”

Zubay, though, said her neighbors are rude, not nice.

“The only time they were nice is, they dropped a box of mangoes off from the neighborhood. I am not interested in mangoes,” Zubay griped.

She just wants the tree trimmed to keep her house safe so it’s in good shape for her to pass along to her son, to sell when she dies. She has “at most 10 more years,” she said, declining to give her age.

On Wednesday, high price or not, seeing the men working provided a measure of satisfaction, she said, as branches dropped to the ground. “I’m very happy.”

Grimes wasn’t pleased, in the light of the next morning, viewing the shorn northern side of the tree.

“It’s a crime that she can get away with doing that,” he said.

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