[Hpn] San Mateo County, CA - It's against the law to live in a tree - San Francisco Chronicle - September 4, 2002

H. C. Covington H. C. Covington" <hccjr@bellsouth.net
Wed, 04 Sep 2002 10:55:10 -0500


12 years in a giant oak tree, now they're told to leave

The cops came by last week and stapled an eviction notice to the
giant oak halfway up San Bruno Mountain, perhaps the only
eviction notice in history ever stapled to a tree trunk.

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By Steve Rubenstein - San Francisco Chronicle - September 4, 2002

Thelma Caballero and Besh Serdahely have lived in an oak tree for
12 years, but the cops say they can't live in their oak tree anymore.

In San Mateo County, it's against the law to live in a tree.

The cops came by last week and stapled an eviction notice to the
giant oak halfway up San Bruno Mountain, perhaps the only
eviction notice in history ever stapled to a tree trunk.

"Inhabitation of this site is illegal," says the sheet of paper
on the tree.

"Notice is hereby given that you leave this site immediately."

Caballero does not look at the notice. She says she is not
leaving, immediately or ever.

"It's just paperwork," she said, smiling. "I'm not going. I'm
staying here."

Anyway, she has more important things to do, such as gather water
from the spring and cut down the evil French broom that keeps
sprouting in the middle of the half-mile trail that leads through
Owl Canyon to her oak tree.

BLENDING IN For 12 years, the married couple have lived in a
homemade hut built into the side of the tree. The hut masterfully
incorporates branches of the tree with various bits of discarded
building materials fished from Dumpsters.

Some call it a homeless encampment. Others say the tidy,
tucked-away dwelling could pass for the tree house the "Swiss
Family Robinson" holed up in.

The roof is a patchwork of junked plastic panels held together
with leather shoelaces, bungee cords and alligator clips. Lounge
chairs are old paint buckets, turned upside down, with castoff
pillows on top. On the ground are two Persian carpets, also
rescued from a Dumpster.

The couple met and fell in love at a San Francisco homeless
shelter in the late 1980s and set up housekeeping in some bushes
by the Caltrain tracks before discovering the joys of tree house life.

Last week, after authorities had ignored the couple for years,
two rangers and a sheriff's deputy trekked the half-mile trail
that leads from the Brisbane industrial park, up the eastern
slope of San Bruno Mountain, through amber waves of poison oak,
to the tree house.

The deputy arrested Serdahely, a 50-year-old laborer, on a 5-year
old misdemeanor warrant from Mendocino County and took him
away in handcuffs.

THREAT OF ARREST

The rangers said Caballero, 50, a former housekeeper from Honduras,
must leave by the end of the month and take her stuff with her, or
face another visit from the deputy.

"Parks are not for housing," said Mary Burns, director of the
county Parks and Recreation Department. "We want to be as
sensitive as possible, but we must also provide safe parks and be
good stewards of the land."

She said the evictions were authorized only after the parks
department, which had known about the couple for years, completed
a new land survey. The survey found that the tree house was on
county-owned land by about 50 feet, Burns said, and not on state
land, as previously thought.

Members of San Bruno Mountain Watch, an environmental group that
has fought commercial development on the mountain for three
decades, say they want Serdahely and Caballero to stay.

"These evictions are a horror," said David Schooley, executive
director of the group. "Besh and Thelma have always been good
stewards. Because of their efforts, Owl Canyon has no invasion
broom, fennel or hemlock."

'LIFE LESSON'

Schooley, who leads school groups on hikes through the canyon,
always pays a social call at the tree house. The kids learn an
"important life lesson," he said -- that not everyone in the world
pays rent, owns a phone and wears a necktie.

Every so often, the couple hike into town for supplies, mostly
beans and bread. The rest of the time they snip away at the
nonnative plants, tend to their compost heap, haul water from a
nearby spring and relax by reading cast- off books, playing
Monopoly and working crossword puzzles.

The oak tree looks out on San Francisco Bay, on freeways, on
power lines, on airplanes and on countless other niceties that
Serdahely and Caballero have managed to dodge so far.

"We have the trees and the sunshine and the sky," Caballero said.
"And we don't have anyplace else to go."

But ever since her husband was led away in handcuffs, Caballero
has had a bad case of jitters. Last week, she ran away and hid
when her old friend Schooley stopped by to look in on her and
drop off a carton of orange juice.

"I am so anxious," she said, after being coaxed from her hiding
place. "I'm afraid to go to town. I'm afraid to talk. I'm afraid
of everything."



E-mail Steve Rubenstein at srubenstein@sfchronicle.com.
2002 San Francisco Chronicle.
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