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Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS
Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS
Alice Mackenzie stands on her back porch looking at the bowed concrete wall behind it on May 1.

Standing in the garden in front of her home on Willoughby Avenue in Ridgewood, Alice Mackenzie is surrounded by a variety of plants so expansive that there is no room in the ground for more. Yet, dozens more are growing from pots around the garden and on the covered patio behind the house.

Mackenzie is a self-professed lover of plants, but standing tall behind her are three huge trees that could be slowly crumbling the foundation of her home.

According to a study performed by Robert Wolfson of RW Technical Engineering Services in 2017 — whom Mackenzie hired to figure out why so much moisture was getting into her home — the three trees and their root structures need to be removed. 

Standing at an estimated 75 feet tall, two of the trees are less than five feet away from the foundation wall of the house and “are causing damage to the integrity of both the building’s foundation walls as well as that of the retaining wall behind the property,” the report shows.

It’s the first home Mackenzie has ever owned, she said, and she fears that if nothing is done with the problem trees she will have to move out.

“I love this house, and I want to live here for the rest of my life,” Mackenzie said. “I’m pretty invested … Cleaning it up from the mess it was in is definitely part of my bonding experience.”

Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS

The home had been foreclosed when she first purchased it in 2011, so Mackenzie knew it was a fixer-upper from the start, she said. Over the next several years she invested a significant amount of time and money into ridding the place of mold, tearing up layers of old linoleum flooring, repairing the roof and completely renovating the basement.

But the basement proved to be the first indicator that there was a larger problem with the property as the moisture and mold returned. Along the baseboard on the wall there was obvious water damage and cracks, and heavy rain often caused the basement to flood.

Wolfson’s report refers to a mold inspection performed at the home in 2016 by Olmsted Environmental Services that shows elevated levels of mold spores in the air in the basement and on the wall behind the baseboard, and points to “water intrusion through the foundation wall” as the cause.

Mackenzie also noticed cracks along the concrete wall on the outside of the house next to the trees, as well as in the concrete floor of the back patio. She had the wall patched up with new layers of concrete several times, she said, and the cracks continue to reappear.

When QNS visited the property on May 1, small cracks were indeed visible on the side of the house, and on the ground below them was a large, protruding tree root that disappeared underground just inches from the wall. Mackenzie also pointed out that the concrete retaining wall behind the home showed obvious contortion and cracking, and the third tree in question is a few feet away from it.

Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo by Ryan Kelley/QNS

Despite the mounting evidence and Wolfson’s report to back up Mackenzie’s claims, the problem with removing the trees is that they are on city property. Though they are so close to Mackenzie’s house, the trees are actually enclosed by a chain-link fence that borders the newly reconstructed Grover Cleveland Athletic Field.

Mackenize watched the construction of the field from the vantage point of her rooftop, and with consultation from her lawyer she decided to contact the School Construction Authority (SCA) about the removal of the trees and compensation for the damage from them. The agency responded quickly and sent project officer Octav Botez to investigate the problem. Botez submitted his report to the agency’s insurance representatives.

“The insurance agent rejected the claim,” Mackenzie said. “He didn’t even come to the house. He didn’t even look at it. He just said, ‘We’re not responsible.'”

When reached over the phone on May 2, Botez told QNS that he agreed the trees seemed like they could be causing the damage from what he saw during his visit with Mackenzie, but since the SCA didn’t do anything to cause the damage, that is probably why the insurance claim was denied. Botez added that the Department of Education owns the property, and Mackenzie should file a claim there, too.

Still, the land between the athletic field and Mackenzie’s home visibly slopes toward the home, and Wolfson’s report references an SCA document from the reconstruction of the field that shows the gradient of the land and that its drainage water would flow toward the home.

Going forward, Mackenzie plans to write to the SCA again and continue trying to figure out a solution so that her investment doesn’t go to waste. While the drainage problem is part of the issue, Mackenzie knows she won’t be able to do anything about that. She’s focusing on dealing with the largest of the plants surrounding her home.

“If I can’t get the trees repaired, I’ll have to leave, and I probably won’t be able to sell it for much, right?” Mackenzie said.

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