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UPDATE | Tree-sitting protester comes down, forest soon follows

Supporters gathered below Chiara D
Supporters gathered below Chiara D'Angelo's 70-foot-high encampment while Seattle TV news stations set up cameras.
— image credit: Luciano Marano | Bainbridge Island Review

Chiara D’Angelo sat surrounded by the scraggy branches of a second-growth stand of Douglas fir trees Tuesday afternoon, 70 feet above the forest floor.

Below her unexpected overnight home, she was surrounded by her supporters and fellow opponents of a proposed shopping center that many say is unfathomable and unneeded.

A day later, the forest was gone, and the protesters who had supported D’Angelo’s treetop last stand had faded back to their familiar corner on Highway 305 and High School Road.

Early Monday morning, D’Angelo scaled a nearly 100-foot Doug fir to begin a sit-in on a piece of wood not much larger than a door.

“This is my home, and it matters to me,” D’Angelo said as she sat in one of the 800 trees planned to be cut down to make way for a new shopping center next to the busy intersection.

The shopping center proposal has been in the works for years, and it survived a grassroots challenge earlier this year and was approved by the city in late March. Ohio-based developer Visconsi received approval to begin clear-cutting the land for the nearly 62,000-square-foot shopping center last week.

The development, located directly across from Ace Hardware on High School Road, will include a Bartell Drugs, a KeyBank branch, restaurants, professional services and health care facilities.

D’Angelo’s tree sit — the first in the state since 1999, organizers said — followed a candlelight vigil and demonstration against the development project Saturday night.

Word of the treetop sit-in spread fast.

A crowd of supportive citizens formed at the foot of the tree.

Two Bainbridge police officers were called to the scene just after 8 a.m. Monday and helped direct traffic to ProBuild, a lumberyard located at one end of the shopping center site. The Bainbridge Island Fire Department arrived at the site, but determined D’Angelo was not in immediate danger.

Visconsi representatives, likewise, responded by notifying city officials that D’Angelo had until 4 p.m. Monday before she would be considered trespassing and Bainbridge police had permission to remove and arrest her.

As time neared the deadline, though, Visconsi officials authorized a 24-hour extension to give D’Angelo more time to come down on her own.

D’Angelo continued to stay in the tree overnight.

The purpose of the tree sit, D’Angelo said, was to delay the tree cut and give the community more time to voice their opposition to the shopping center project.

It’s also a demonstration to protect the kind of island life she grew up with for future generations to enjoy, she said.

D’Angelo — who gained media attention a few years ago as an outspoken supporter of the city’s ban on plastic shopping bags — comes from a long line of Bainbridge Islanders. Her grandfather, Art Patricio, served as a ferry boat captain for 50 years. Her grandmother, Lora Hart, worked at Streamliner Diner while she raised her children on Bainbridge.

Likewise, D’Angelo grew up on Bainbridge and graduated last year from BHS.

When asked about the city’s plan for removing D’Angelo, city spokeswoman Kellie Stickney said the city didn’t want her arrested.

“(We) are hopeful that Chiara will choose to come down on her own to express her beliefs within the limits of the law,” Stickney said Tuesday.

In the meantime, Stickney added, Bainbridge police were discussing a plan of action if D’Angelo decided not to come down.

Despite being on a platform 70 feet off the ground, D’Angelo said she slept well Monday night.

“It was really special,” D’Angelo said. “I finally feel rested.”

Community supporters of D’Angelo’s tree sit used a pulley system to haul food and other items to get D’Angelo through the sit-in. Some of the donated food items included fresh crab meat, fruit and several pizzas donated by That’s A Some Pizza.

“I packed some food, and actually haven’t touched it,” D’Angelo said.

“Usually your diet is so poor when you’re doing campaign work, but I have more food than I came up with.”

In anticipation of Visconsi’s prior deadline, roughly 50 supporters showed up Monday to encourage D’Angelo and continue the protest at the corner of High School Road and Highway 305.

The gathering and tree sit attracted attention from Seattle television news stations; KOMO, KIRO and King5 sent camera crews and reporters. Newspaper reporters also gathered at the site.

Ron Peltier of Islanders for Responsible Development, the activist group that appealed the environmental review for the Visconsi project earlier this year, said that he hoped the tree sit will inspire more citizens to become involved in city affairs.

“There are people that care but then leave it to someone else to make change,” Peltier said. “I’d like to see citizens become engaged as citizens.”

Later, Peltier added that sometimes it takes a personality like D’Angelo’s to prompt community change.

“You need a young headstrong, idealistic woman to make it happen,” Peltier told a crowd of supporters gathered beneath D’Angelo’s tree.

Several other residents offered words of encouragement and support.

“’If you’re not a business to serve the community, you have no business being in business,’” David Korten said, quoting words from his father.

“What this is, is the extraction of money by absentee investors for Wall Street bankers,” he continued.

Another resident agreed.

“I’m so tired of having greed take things from us,” Jeny Vidal said.

Winslow Way business owner Barbara Tolliver said that she has for the most part kept her opinions to herself the past six months.

At the foot of D’Angelo’s post, however, Tolliver told the crowd that spending $100 at a locally-owned store puts $39 back into the local economy. If the same amount is spent at a chain, just $13 stays.

“I’m tired of being stopped for the idea that it’s self-serving,” Tolliver said. “The data is there and we hear it from our customers, too.”

Just after 4 p.m. Tuesday — as the second deadline passed for D’Angelo, and now more than 100 community supporters surrounded the foot of the tree — Visconsi representatives offered her a deal to avoid charges.

“We want her to understand that we acknowledge her point of view. We respect her right – and all community members’ rights – to voice their opinions,” the company said in a statement to the media.

“But we respectfully urge D’Angelo and all others to do this in a safe and lawful manner,” Visconsi continued.

The company also noted that the property was correctly zoned for their development, and that it fit with the city’s existing rules and regulations.

Visconsi also talked to opponents and had taken extra steps based on their concerns.

“We collaborated with the Islanders for Responsible Development to identify an arborist to advise us regarding removal of trees. Our final plan goes above and beyond parameters set by the city’s recently enacted tree preservation ordinance,” the company noted.

The project was smaller than what was allowed by Bainbridge regulations, company officials added, and the project itself would have trails and other public amenities.

With television cameras pointed skyward, however, the protest continued. At one point, it looked like D’Angelo would leave her roost.

Late Tuesday, she shouted from her treetop post that if everyone except for five protestors left the property and she came down from the tree all by 7:30 p.m. she would walk free.

D’Angelo said later she had intended to stay in the tree past the 7:30 p.m. deadline and continue her protest.

“I really wanted to see what it would look like to see my will up against Visconsi’s, to see how that played out,” she said.

By then, police had moved most of the crowd of protesters, as well as reporters and camera crews, away from the protest area. Many wondered and waited as sunset came and the forest turned dark.

When police came to retrieve her at 7:30 p.m., though, she was informed that her five-person ground support would have to vacate the premises if she wanted to stay.  D’Angelo would then be left by herself in the tree.

“I didn’t have time to think that through,” D’Angelo said.

“Together we unanimously decided that it was time for me to leave … this has to be a community effort.”

She emerged from the forested grove next to Highway 305 and High School Road just after 8:30 p.m. flanked by two supporters and followed by two more who carried a large banner protesting the shopping center. D’Angelo was met by fellow protestors and quickly surrounded by reporters, including some from Seattle television stations, after she walked out of the woods.

“I didn’t go up there for the trees; I went up there for the community who loves those trees,” D’Angelo told the crowd.

She noted the community’s involvement against the Visconsi project — a seven-building development that will include a new bank, drugstore and other commercial space — and encouraged people to stay involved.

“It’s not about me anymore,” D’Angelo said.

As if in response to D’Angelo’s descent, construction equipment for land clearing was brought onto the site of the future shopping center at High School Road and Highway 305 just before 9 a.m. Wednesday.

Clear-cutting of the property quickly got underway.

The sound of the tree cutting could be heard throughout the nearby Stonecrest neighborhood. A short burst from a saw — less than a second in length — was followed by a massive “thwack!” as each tree was cut and then plopped to the ground by the excavator.

In less than an hour, an area the size of a football field just west of Pollys Lane had been cleared of all trees.

D’Angelo said later that the community will have to step up to prevent similar developments in the years to come.

“In order to stop these projects in the future, they have to change the (municipal) code or there has to be a lot more people in the trees,” D’Angelo said.

“With one person in the tree, it’s just symbolic action … had there been more people in the trees, it might have been a different story.”

Regardless, she added, her lone tree sit prompted the exact kind of response she hoped it would receive.

It’s brought awareness and resilience to the community to stand up and to engage, she said.

“My voice has been amplified and the voice of the community’s has been amplified,” D’Angelo said.

Review writer Cecilia Garza contributed to this story.

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