THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Hello, hello: Tree dispute falls on deaf ears

Brenda Jones needed some help, but no one, it seems, wanted to hear her. A lifelong Charlottesville resident, Jones says she has been living for the last six years under the threat of home damage, if not personal injury, from several large trees looming from her neighbor's yard over her Fifeville home.

It's not a hypothetical threat. Jones says that in 2000 and again in 2005, branches broke off the neighbor's trees during storms and seriously damaged the house she has lived in for 24 years, requiring her to pony up $1,000– the deductible under her homeowner's policy– for repairs each time.

Jones tried to get Dogwood Housing, the owner of the adjacent parcel, to trim the trees, but she was unsuccessful. Among other things, Jones says that in 2006 she suggested to Dogwood's owner, Eugene Williams, that they split the cost, but he brushed her off. "The trees are not bothering me," Jones claims Williams told her. Williams didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

By this spring, Jones says, she was at her "wit's end," so on May 21 she wrote to Charlottesville Mayor David Brown seeking the city's help.

"I'm a widow on a fixed income trying very hard to maintain my property," she wrote. "I don't know what else to do." She also sent assistant Mayor Kendra Hamilton a copy.

She can't afford to have the trees trimmed on her own, and in fact, the law does not appear to be in her favor.

Neither councilor responded, so on June 21 Jones wrote to the other members of City Council, as well as City Manager, Gary O'Connell. "In the City Code it is mandated that all property owners should maintain their properties," she wrote. " At this point, I am actually in fear for my life... when the wind blows there is no sleep!"

But still no one has responded, Jones says. And she can't help but notice that her neighbor is something of a local celebrity. An advocate for civil rights since the 1950s, Williams put his theories about integration into practice in 1980 when he created Dogwood Housing to scatter low-income housing throughout the city. His decision to sell the properties was the subject of the Hook's April 5 cover story, "Techtonic shift: Eugene Williams loosens his tie."

On July 11, the Daily Progress reported that developer Keith Woodward has offered to pay $4.9 million for 58 of the properties (after obtaining $850,000 in City financing to swing the deal). It couldn't be determined whether the sold properties include the parcel adjacent to Jones.

Mayor Brown says he recalls Jones' letter "in general terms," but he offers no excuses. "I try to respond to every call, email, and letter I get," he says, "but they do manage, with more frequency than I would like, to sometimes slip by."

Councilor Dave Norris expressed sympathy for Jones, but says he doesn't believe it's "appropriate for Councilors to get involved in every dispute among neighbors (we'd never get anything else done!)," a sentiment Brown echoed. Still, Norris says, the city needs to "develop a better system for responding to citizen concerns," and noted funds have been reallocated to hire a person dedicated to customer service.

Councilor Julian Taliaferro says, "I'm sorry [Jones] didn't get a response."

As it turns out, the city can't help Jones. Lisa Miller, a paralegal with the City Attorney's Office, explained that if Jones' problem involves trees on private property, "It's a private matter."

Jones says she suspected as much, but remains disappointed that she received no acknowledgment– even "We can't help you" or "There's nothing we can do."

"To say nothing says much more," Jones says.