The Central Arkansas Water board of commissioners met for 90 minutes today on the cutting of some 70 trees on its property in the Lake Maumelle watershed by a neighbor, Dennis Rainey, who wanted to improve his view of the lake and sunset from his home on Spillway Road.
Rainey appeared with his lawyer, Rick Donovan, and admitted a crew working for him had cut trees at his direction based on alleged guidance and permission he’d been given 25 years ago by the late Jim Harvey, then chief executive of the water utility, and Ed Odle, who oversaw Lake Maumelle before his retirement.
Harvey’s widow, Linda, appeared in person to directly dispute Rainey’s account of the meeting with Harvey. She said her husband never would have permitted cutting in the watershed, nor would Odle have done so. She told a story about Odle saying he wouldn’t even allow someone to cut a branch of wisteria. Blake Weindorf, the water utility’s chief engineer, said he’d spoken with Odle, 89, and he “explicitly” disputed Rainey’s account.
The meeting concluded with general counsel David Johnson saying a criminal investigation file should be completed for presentation to the prosecuting attorney within 60 days. He said criminal mischief, or deliberate destruction of someone’s property, can be a felony. He said a conclusion of such a charge could include restitution. If no charge was filed, or if the utility wasn’t satisfied otherwise with the outcome, it could file a suit for civil damages.
The board was urged by Lynn Foster, a retired law professor and Ouachita Trail advocate, to file a lawsuit and seek severe damages not only for the lost timber but for the amount of value Rainey had added to his home by improving the view. Otherwise, she said, others will do the same and, if called on it, “just write a check and go on with their lives.”
After several people spoke about how the damage was discovered and their unhappiness about it, Rainey addressed the commissioners, some attending in person and some remotely.
He said he’d bought two acres for a home overlooking the lake in 1983 and noticed then that some trees had been cut nearby to improve the view. In 1985, he started cutting down trees on his property. This was before the utility developed a watershed management plan and began acquiring buffer zones around its chief water supply lake. Rainey’s property actually falls within the watershed, land on which the utility now tries to prevent development.
In the 1985 work, Rainey said he knowingly cut down a tree “just over” his property line on the utility’s property. He said he’d always “attempted to be a follower of Christ” and “God began to work me over. Every time I’d open a Bible, I’d see trees.”
This prompted him, he said, to call Harvey and confess what he’d done and offer restitution. By Rainey’s account, Harvey said it was hard to be precise about property lines and told him just not to cut any more trees.
Rainey didn’t for 11 years. But in 1995, he wrote a book for married couples (he founded the Family Life religious counseling business with his wife Barbara) and included a chapter about the tree and how it had affected him.
He said he told that story in giving a book to Ed Odle in 1996. Odle allegedly then told Rainey “you can cut any pine tree you want, but you can’t cut oaks, you can only top them.” He said since then he’d done what “he’d asked us to do.”
In August 1996, he hired a tree service and topped oaks and cut pines, dropping them to the forest floor. “I didn’t hear a single complaint.”
Then, in May this year, “based on prior permission,” he and his wife hired a tree service to “re-create a window [view] that had been created in the past.” He said he gave directions based on the reputed past permission, though he conceded the tree service might have topped some trees “lower than I’d asked.” Again, cuttings were left on the forest floor.
“We did not willfully disregard regulations regarding this property,” he said.
“If I’d have known what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it. I’m sorry for the harm caused. Let’s work together to figure out a way to resolve it.”
Linda Harvey said her husband “did not give permission” to Rainey. She said he’d been upset when he learned of the 1996 cutting, met Rainey and told him he wasn’t supposed to do it. Weindorf said Bruno Kirsch, retired operating officer then, also told him there’d been no agreement on tree cutting and topping.
Weindorf said he’d called Odle back to be sure about what he’d said and mentioned Rainey having said he’d given his books to Odle and Harvey and that they’d given him permission.
“He said none of that is true. He said, ‘I did not call him. He called me. He asked permission. I said it’s not in my power to give permission. I called Mr. Harvey and that’s when he and I went to the site and said we could not give one permission because everyone else on the road would want to.'”
Weindorf quoted Odle about the book; “The only thing I know about a book is Mr. Rainey went back in the house and got two books and gave each of us a signed copy. I don’t recall I ever read it.”
Harvey said her husband and Odle “did everything in their power” to protect the watershed. At one point, she returned to the commissioner’s table to add the comment that her husband had been struck by how “casual” Rainey seemed about the matter. She said Harvey had asked Rainey how he could do it without seeking permission. By her account, her husband said Rainey had said that he’d found it easier to get forgiveness than permission.
Commissioners offered few comments, though one, Carmen Smith, seemed to scoff at the notion of claiming that past permission, even if it happened, could justify this year’s cutting. She compared it to her once having gotten permission from a neighbor to trim some trees on his property, then going back and cutting trees on the property without permission after it was sold to another owner.
Rainey seemed to suggest that there wasn’t sufficient communication about watershed issues. Weindorf said there’d been extensive outreach, including public meetings, and he and others talked of the value of tree cover in protecting the lake quality as well as broader climate issues.
Weindorf said a survey so far indicated 30 pines had been cut down and two hickory and 37 oak trees had been topped. He said more damage may be discovered. He pinpointed most of the trees on a drone photograph, all in waterworks property beyond Rainey’s property line.
Tad Bohannon, chief executive of the utility, said it was taking the matter seriously, but would move deliberately. He credited Rainey for the “courage” to speak publicly. Rainey’s lawyer wouldn’t allow him to take questions from commissioners.
Rainey had said earlier: “I’ve never had my name so trashed as I have after this. Some may feel it’s deserved, I understand that. But I have been in public life a long time and my wife and I have never experienced something like this.”