Rush to judgment?

After months of silence Andrew Meghdadi tells his side of the Terra Bella tree-cutting story

Andrew Meghdadi

Andrew Meghdadi

Photo by Tom Angel

Legal eagles: Besides local attorney Bill Ward, Meghdadi has also hired three lawyers from the Sacramento law firm of Downey, Brand, Seymour & Rohwer. The law office is located on the tenth floor in a building in the Capitol Mall and employs more than 100 attorneys.

Andrew Meghdadi looks tired, disheveled and somber. He’s slumped in a chair next to business partner and friend Dr. Peter Wolk, a heart surgeon at Enloe Medical Center.

Meghdadi wants to speak his piece and explain what he’s gone through since March, when he was singled out and publicly persecuted as a developer gone mad after cutting down more than 100 trees on his property.

He’s contacted us, he says, because he trusts we’ll be fair. Plus he doesn’t particularly care for, and no longer reads, the Chico Enterprise-Record, which in his mind has maligned him with a series of negative headlines and stories.

“I’m very depressed, and when I’m very depressed I gain weight,” the white-haired developer says. “I’ve put on probably at least 15, 16 pounds.”

“He’s a mess,” adds an obviously concerned and emotionally worked-up Wolk.

There’s a moment of awkward silence before I ask Meghdadi how he’s spending his days of late.

“I try to keep a low profile and focus on my work and spend time at home with my family,” he offers.

“Life goes on. I’ve stopped reading the papers. Basically the E-R wants me hung.”

“Yeah,” Wolk says. “This has been front-page news like he was a rapist.”

The story began on a rainy day in March, when the first of many trees began falling with a mighty thud to the muddy ground on Meghdadi’s yet-to-be-built Terra Bella subdivision in southeast Chico. Since then, the short, stocky developer has tried to keep a low profile for good reason.

On that day, 110 of 179 oak trees, many of them hundreds of years old, were felled on Meghdadi’s 59-acre property. Within days the massive tree takedown was local media’s No. 1 story. Almost overnight, Meghdadi was turned into the whipping boy for all developer sins by an unprecedented, and unlikely, coalition of locals. From the tree hugger to the Chico State University professor, the SUV-driving soccer mom to those who also make their living in the building trade, the consensus is that Andrew Meghdadi deserves no mercy.

He’s been the subject of letters to the editor of this paper and the Enterprise-Record—a flood at first, a trickle more recently. Early on he was daily front-page fodder in the E-R and in stories where people interviewed called for jail time and even questioned Meghdadi’s sanity. Not surprisingly, he was also beaten up by callers to Tell It to the E-R. He was even the subject of an unflattering short story in the CN&R’s recent Fiction 59 contest.

His crime? Excessive tree cutting on March 19. At least that is what city officials say. According to project conditions as set by the city planning department, only 33 trees were to be taken down. That is what was shown on the tree-removal map the city approved.

Meghdadi has been publicly silent on the matter, save for a full-page ad taken out in the E-R in April that only seemed to further chap a lot of angry hides.

There’s been no escape from the vilification, and his efforts toward a hearing to publicly explain what happened have gone nowhere even though the Chico City Council included holding such a hearing in a motion passed three months ago. And the resulting silence has been deafening, causing the town’s collective anger to fester.

Never have the citizens of Chico been more unified in a common emotion of outrage and opinion—run the bastard out of town!

On that now-infamous March morning, Meghdadi was fingered by the neighbors of his Terra Bella subdivision, many of whom didn’t want the project near them in the first place. City officials finally responded later in the day, after receiving a number of calls, and the project was shut down. When local media caught wind of the alleged tree infraction, a feeding frenzy erupted.

Meghdadi was out of town when the story exploded.

OAK TREE INQUISITION <br>Chico City Councilmembers (from left) Rick Keene, Mayor Dan Herbert, Steve Bertagna and Larry Wahl were especially tough on developer Andrew Meghdadi the night he appreared before them to answer why he cut down so many trees on his Terra Bella subdivision.

Illustration by Steve Ferchaud

“I was in Florida for a family reunion,” he recalled. “I learned there was a cease-and-desist order. I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t want to ruin my vacation with my family. We were at a reunion.”

Meghdadi, nearly 3,000 miles away, did not understand the urgency of the situation that was unfolding at home.

“I thought it was a mistake, and then [city Community Development Director] Tony Baptiste called me and said, ‘I want to meet you as soon as you get off the plane.’

“I was off the plane at 2:30, and I was in Tony’s office at 3 o’clock. This was on March 26. Tony and [Planning Director] Kim Seidler and my arborist [Scott Muir] and his attorney were there. The arborist would not look in our faces.”

One week later Meghdadi was brought before the City Council and a packed house of angry citizens, where he was dealt a potentially expensive and even project-killing punishment—a requirement that he do a supplemental environmental-impact report, which the city says could cost $50,000 and Meghdadi thinks will cost twice that amount because of statutes and deadlines.

The strong public outcry and stern reception from the city was triggered, at least in part, by an incident two years ago, when Meghdadi cut down a number of trees on his Nob Hill project off East Eighth Street before nesting surveys for raptors that may or may not have been living in those trees was completed. At that time Meghdadi was fined $22,000.

He explained to the council then that he had only recently purchased the Nob Hill project and did not have time to read all of the conditions. Planning Director Seidler concedes that while it is not a valid excuse, it is understandable given the complex nature and process of building a subdivision.

But this time, at the April 2 meeting, neither Meghdadi nor his attorney Bill Ward, who’d just been hired, were prepared to give Meghdadi’s side of the story. So they asked for and were granted 45 days to prepare.

At that same meeting, Seidler told the council, “At some point we’re going to need to allow the fallen wood to be removed from the property. At some point there is going to be a fire danger, and it’s going to be hard to remove weeds from under there. And I would guess that would occur pretty quickly. We wanted to see what the outcome of this meeting was.”

More than three months later, the city has yet to give Meghdadi a chance to explain his side of the controversy. Rebuffed by the city, and because the statute of limitations was about to expire, Meghdadi filed a legal action on July 1. Because of the litigation, city discussions on the matter will now most likely take place behind closed doors. And because Meghdadi can do no work on his Terra Bella property, the downed trees still lie where they fell.

In the course of that April 2 council meeting, Meghdadi was roundly chastised by members of the council, particularly the four men who comprise the conservative majority, men who normally side with and encourage those in the development industry. The three-member minority, which is usually harder on and more skeptical of developers, watched in near amazement at the proceedings before them.

But for Councilmembers Rick Keene, Dan Herbert, Larry Wahl and Steve Bertagna, Meghdadi offered a rare opportunity for them to prove they don’t coddle developers. And they didn’t waste the opportunity, clearly showing their anger as they questioned Meghdadi’s integrity and called for a letter from the mayor asking the state to investigate and possibly revoke his builder’s license.

It’s worth remembering that other developers have broken city-imposed conditions before, by plowing over wetlands, for example, or taking more trees than allowed. But in those cases the developers were members of the local chapter of the Building Industry Association and, perhaps more important, big contributors to the political campaigns of certain councilmembers. Meghdadi is neither, saying he has no time for the BIA and no interest in playing politics.

Andrew Meghdadi was born in Iran in 1942 and came to the United States in 1960 at the age of 17. He moved to Los Angeles and finished his senior year of high school there. And he stayed in Southern California for the next 15 years, meeting and marrying his wife Annette. They have two grown daughters.

Meghdadi still speaks with a Middle Eastern accent, pronouncing engineer “inJENear.”

Keenly aware of his Iranian background and the negative stereotypes many people in America hold toward Middle Easterners, Meghdadi sprinkles his conversation with sayings such as, “I may be Iranian, but I’m not dumb.”

He asked me if I thought racism played a role in how he’s been treated in the wake of the tree cutting.

Dr. Wolk cautioned that was not a question Meghdadi should ask, at least publicly.

I told him perhaps his background did make it easier for some to go after him. I didn’t mention the March 19 phone call I’d gotten from one of the neighbors: “You know,” the caller said, “where he’s from they don’t care as much about trees.”

NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH <br>People who live in Chico Creek Estates, across the Butte Creek diversion channel from Meghdadi’s property, called the city on March 19 to announce trees were falling on the Terra Bella subdivision.

Photo by Tom Angel

In 1975 Meghdadi landed a job with the Fleetwood motor home company and left Southern California for Indiana, where he would stay for the next eight years, though not comfortably.

“I didn’t like the weather,” he explained. “I had chances to transfer to Pennsylvania or Illinois, but I wanted to get back out west.”

He got his wish in 1983 when he was offered a chance to manage the new Fleetwood operation opening in Chico.

A few years later, while still with Fleetwood, he went in with a group of Chico doctors, including Wolk, and purchased LaSalles restaurant and bar. The doctors wanted a place where their rock ‘n’ roll band could play; Meghdadi wanted to invest in a business.

Some have suggested it was Meghdadi alone who ordered the large-scale tree removal. And a former LaSalles employee who worked under Meghdadi described him as the kind of owner who worked quietly behind the scenes, formulating his own ideas until they were ripe for implementation.

“He’d let somebody do their own thing and then walk right in, just dismiss their ideas and do things his way,” the employee recalled.

The LaSalles investment, Meghdadi says, was a losing proposition, and after a few years the owners sold it. Soon after, he and Fleetwood parted ways, a mutual agreement, Meghdadi said.

“I saw the pie [of potential customers] for RVs was shrinking,” he explained. “Baby boomers weren’t interested in RVs like their parents—they fly and rent cars when they get there.”

However, according to one source close to Meghdadi at the time, the departure from Fleetwood wasn’t quite that graceful.

“He was devastated and really down and didn’t know what to do,” the source said.

That’s where Wolk stepped in, lending him money to get into the development game. Meghdadi said his first project was a single house that he and a partner built from the foundation on up.

“I was digging trenches for [what turned out to be] a dollar an hour,” he said. “How many other local developers have done that?”

The completion and sale of that first house got him started, and over the years he’s built up MBD—Meghdadi Builder & Developer—buying large subdivisions that have already been taken through most of the process of red tape and are ready for construction. That approach greatly reduces the risk of losing money on a project. Last July he bought the Terra Bella project, which was actually three separate subdivisions that had been in the works for 10 years.

Today he’s proud of himself and what he’s done over the years. He has the trappings of a wealthy man including a black Mercedes—it’s an ‘89, but in excellent shape—a new pickup truck and property across the state, including land in Humboldt, Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

He used to live in a big, spacious house on Keefer Road where he had a half-dozen or so classic cars stored in the huge garage.

He’s built about 300 houses—five projects all together—and has another in the works for 25 houses slated for Entler Road off the Midway south of Chico.

He says if all goes well he and his partners hope to realize $30,000 to $40,000 profit off each house in a subdivision. But that kind of robust return is probably now in jeopardy with the Terra Bella project.

Meghdadi, not surprisingly, thinks the city shares the blame for what took place March 16, in part due to poor communication.

“I think the left hand and the right hand of the city don’t know what the other is doing,” he said.

Photo by Tom Angel

The developer also says that in the wake of the Nob Hill fiasco, in which his workers took down trees before they were supposed to, he took special care to make sure he was doing the tree removal according to city instructions and met with city officials.

Nowhere, he says, is there a document from the city that clearly states he could cut only 33 trees, which is what city officials say was the limit on land that supported blue oak trees that were hundreds of years old.

He has produced and shared with the city a number of documents that would seem to support his claims. Included is a letter to longtime city planner Clif Sellers from Terra Bella project engineer Robert Feeney dated Nov. 12, 2001.

The letter mentions a Nov. 8 meeting confirming, at least to Feeney’s understanding, that Meghdadi had the city’s permission to remove a number of olive trees, nine digger pine trees, two dead trees, 36 trees in severe decline, 94 trees in poor condition and in “conflict with the subdivision” and 10 percent of healthy trees that stood where houses or streets were slated to go.

Those numbers were based on an arborist’s report. Meghdadi says his engineer received no response from the city.

According to court documents filed on behalf of Meghdadi by Sacramento attorney William Warne, on Feb. 21 city Senior Planner Patrick Murphy, who was the city’s point person on the project, sent a memorandum to Feeney that read: “If the arborist has any doubts as to which trees should be removed, or the number of trees to be removed, they should consult with our office prior to beginning the work.”

The same day Meghdadi sent a letter to contractors asking for bids to remove 100 trees from the Terra Bella property. However, the court file says, in early March Meghdadi discovered that someone had removed the tree tags indicating which trees should stay and which should go.

His original arborist, Meg Burgin, who placed those tags, the file continues, was too busy both to re-tag the trees and supervise their tree removal before an April 1 deadline. That deadline was imposed because of nesting birds. Remember Nob Hill?

In a letter dated March 20, Burgin said she was removed from the job with no explanation.

Subsequently, Meghdadi hired Scott Muir and his company, Associated Arborists, Inc. (AAI). The city approved the change in arborists. Using Burgin’s tree survey report, the file says, AAI prepared a color-coded map showing 94 trees would be removed due to poor health and another 16 would go under the 10 percent of all trees allowance.

On a document dated March 13, 2002, Muir concludes: “Due to the trees’ condition and health, we recommend 94 trees be removed. An additional 16 healthy oaks must be removed due to their location with regards to planned lots, roadways and sidewalks.”

On March 14, the court filing says, Meghdadi and Muir went to the Planning Department to make sure everybody was on the same page. Meghdadi said he had the tree-removal map in hand.

According to Meghdadi’s legal suit, Murphy came to the front counter and said he didn’t need to see the map and that it was not necessary for someone from his department to oversee the tree removal.

That same afternoon Murphy sent an e-mail to Feeney Engineering that read: “[Y]ou are correct in that I did tell Andrew and his arborist today that they can proceed with the cutting … provided it all conforms with the various mitigation measures, conditions, etc. I’m crossing my fingers that they do it correctly. I very much appreciate you checking in with me to assure that we all are on board! Thanks again.”

City Planning Director Kim Seidler and Murphy are still trying to sort out what happened at Terra Bella.

Murphy’s been on staff only eight months and came onto this project after most of the negotiations and conditions were set. It was his first project; the only other one he’s had since coming to Chico is the hotly contested Sterling student apartment that could also be headed to court.

The youthful-appearing planner smiles when asked about the job so far.

“I came here from Santa Cruz, and it’s the same down there,” he said. “Any place you have a lot of growth, you’re going to run into this sort of thing where you have a lot of public input.

“I do remember the very first meeting when I came on board. Mr. Meghdadi specifically asked, ‘This 10 percent thing, can I increase that?’ The answer from Clif was, ‘Absolutely not.'”

PI Brad Stovall, a private investigator hired by one of Meghdadi’s attorneys, says he discovered thousands of documents in the city offices relating to the case of the downed oak trees.

Photo by Tom Angel

As for the Nov. 12 message from Feeney to Sellers listing the trees for removal, Seidler said the letter “doesn’t really ask for a response. It says this is my understanding, this is what I’m doing. But I do think Clif made a response to him.”

Murphy says arborist Muir told him he did not make the map showing 94 trees to be removed because of their poor condition, that it was given to him. And, he said, referring to the wording in his March 14 e-mail to Feeney Engineering in which he said he was “crossing his fingers,” he meant nothing by it, that it only sounds more significant in the wake of what has happened since.

“I had no idea what [Meghdadi’s] past was or anything,” he says. “I was just kind of … That was just a general statement that wasn’t linked to anything. I had responded to Feeney saying, ‘Yes, you’re correct.’ We did authorize them to do the work provided they conformed to conditions.”

He recalled the day he talked with Meghdadi and Muir in the Planning Department.

“When Meghdadi and his arborist came to the counter that day, he didn’t say, ‘Hey, we have a new map for you that is totally different from the one we submitted.’ I guess he wanted a verbal OK, and I said, ‘Yeah, I just told Feeney you’re ready to go ahead and do some removal.’ At no point in time did he say, ‘You don’t want to see the brand-new map that I’ve done?'”

Murphy said he didn’t notice if Meghdadi was carrying a map with him that day.

The map is the key. Seidler says the one that was ultimately used was not the one that was approved.

“We thought it was clear, because the map that we had been presented by the applicant and that had been approved specifically showed which trees were being removed,” he said. “As a part of their case now they say we misinterpreted their map. I’m not sure how that could be. Their explanation to me, at least at this point, simply doesn’t wash.”

Should the city share any of the blame for what happened?

“The city shares in one aspect,” Seidler maintains. “It could have, and should have, responded earlier on the day the trees were being cut down. I think there is a reasonable explanation as to why that happened, but the fact is we should have been out there quicker, and we could have saved trees if we had been.”

Seidler defended his department, pointing out it gets a number of calls from suspicious neighbors from the time the first survey stake is pounded into the ground of a new project.

“Usually it’s just that people don’t understand what’s going on and so they call,” he said.

“We knew Meghdadi was going to start up, and we knew it was going to involve tree cutting, and we started getting calls from neighbors saying he’s cutting trees. So we said OK. Then we kept getting calls, and I’m not sure at what point the alarm bells began to ring, but at some point they did, and we got out there and discovered what happened.

“I think the staff regrets that intensely. At the same time, that doesn’t mean the staff is responsible for the removal of those trees.”

Seidler agrees mistakes can happen.

“There is no question that this kind of thing is complex,” he said. “We are dealing with a decade-old subdivision, a decade-old EIR. We are going through permutations of design and going from three separated subdivisions to a single one.

“But we do anticipate that a developer in this city is going to understand those complexities and be prepared to deal with them.”

Meghdadi himself says his project is the most complex the city has ever faced, which leads him to wonder why it would have a newcomer like Murphy head the job.

One person, besides Meghdadi, his attorneys and Wolk, who thinks maybe the city should share the blame is private investigator Brad Stovall. Granted, Stovall was hired by attorney Ward to dig up information, and he found plenty, including the March 14 e-mail from Murphy to Feeney.

BLUE OAKS <br>Meghdadi argues there’s no financial gain in taking down more trees than allowed. However, he says he’s legally liable should an unhealthy tree drop its limbs or itself on people or property.

Photo by Tom Angel

But Stovall adds that he is not the most likely of people to be in a position of defending a developer.

“I am very much a lefty and a progressive in my politics, and when I was approached by Bill [Ward] on this case, I had my reservations,” he said.

Stovall says his investigations led him to many, many documents related to the project—8 feet worth.

“The files I filmed at the Chico City Hall offices … were part of a large, almost totally unmanageable system,” Stovall said in a report delivered to Ward. “There were four boxes, each approximately 2 feet long, containing files dating from around 1990 to the present.”

He estimated there are as many as 21,000 pages related to the project.

“No discernible filing system or index was available,” he wrote. “Some of the files were from the Community Development Department, some were part of the Administrative Record collection, some were from the office of the City Manager and some were just file folders unlabeled as to origin.”

From what he’s uncovered, Stovall said he believes the blame should be placed on poor communication and the fact the city does not have a tree ordinance.

Stovall said he’s videotaped the downed trees and found that as many as 40, in his opinion, were hollowed out and close to dead.

“I think the city is complicit in that it didn’t follow through on the project. I think they dropped the ball and now are trying to cover it up.”

Stovall also said he’s surprised by the intense public anger that’s been directed at Meghdadi.

“I bet not a one of these people know him,” he said. “But they want to punish him more than he deserves. If we still had pillories, he’d be in one.”

Meghdadi, Stovall suggests, is paying for the past sins of all developers in this town. “And that’s wrong, totally wrong.”

In the meantime, Meghdadi and Wolk are concerned about the professional damage Meghdadi has suffered in the wake of March 16

“The product sells itself,” Wolk said. “And since this came out, we’ve sold 15, 16 houses. Still, I’m sure we lost a lot of business.

“If there are a hundred people looking at houses and now they see the name Meghdadi on the ad, I can hear someone say, ‘I’m not buying a house from him. He’s the guy who slaughtered all those trees.’

“I know Andy is proud of his work and builds nice houses, but I just can’t believe that that is not part of the reality.”

Wolk gets angry just thinking about it.

“Sorry to get so animated,” he said, “but he’s a friend of mine, and I’ve watched the story develop in the paper. It’s like it’s got a life of its own.”

I drove out to the Terra Bella property with Meghdadi to survey the situation a week or so ago.

As we climbed back into his pickup truck to leave, he pointed to the neighbors across the dry Butte Creek diversion creekbed who had gathered in their back yards to see what we were up to. They’d been watching us the whole time, and it was obvious from their body language—hands on hips or arms folded defiantly across their chests—that they didn’t want to make small talk.

One woman opened the gate to her back fence and took a few steps toward the now-dry diversion channel that separates Meghdadi’s property from the neighbors'. She signaled for us to stop and roll down the window. She apparently had something to say.

“If I stop, I have two options,” Meghdadi said as he slowly drove over the rutted dirt road.

“I can tell her the truth, or I can lie to her. I don’t want to do either, so I just keep driving."