One of the nation’s wealthiest attorneys is suing another high-profile attorney, alleging he hired a landscaper to cut down an old-growth aspen grove on his property so the defendant could have a million-dollar view of Mount Sopris.
The lawsuit by Gerald Hosier of Aspen lists as defendants Walter Stuart, a part-time valley resident who also lives in New York City, and Mitchell Giannetti, a Carbondale man who owns a landscaping business.
Hosier is seeking at least $1 million in damages, the amount he says Stuart gained in property value after he cut down 39 aspen trees, some of which were 90 feet tall and up to 70 years old, the lawsuit says.
Hosier owns a 36-acre undeveloped lot adjacent to Stuart’s property in Sopris Mountain Ranch between Basalt and Carbondale. The development, once the site of the Strang family’s cattle ranch, is located at the base of the nearly 13,000-foot peak.
Hosier, who has a $15 million home on Red Mountain, bought the midvalley parcel in 1998, the lawsuit says.
Until Stuart’s actions, the Hosier property “was in its historic, natural state, with many large aspen and other trees, bushes and native grasses covering the entirety of the property ...,” wrote Hosier’s attorney, Matt Ferguson of Aspen.
That land included “more than 20 old-growth aspen trees ranging in height from 50 to 90 feet or more and having trunk diameters from approximately 10 to 25 inches,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit, which was filed Aug. 7 in Pitkin County District Court, says Stuart owns a 35-acre parcel with a single-family residence.
From Nov. 25-27, Giannetti’s company, Spring Creek Land & Waterscapes, acting under Stuart’s direction, “illegally entered upon, and then cut down and removed at least 21 large aspen trees, all located entirely on the Hosier property,” Ferguson wrote. “Stuart also personally entered the Hosier property to identify for Giannetti the trees that he wanted cut and removed.”
This was allegedly done to improve the view corridor of Mount Sopris from Stuart’s land.
The lawsuit says the tree cutting went unnoticed by Hosier, the Sopris Mountain Ranch’s board of directors and Pitkin County, and that Giannetti cut down 18 more large aspens, again identified by Stuart, in April.
At some point other residents in the subdivision noticed that the trees had been cut down and notified Hosier.
Stuart’s attorney, Stephen Baity of Denver, said in a prepared statement that his client acknowledges “that an unfortunate mistake was made when some trees were removed near the boundary of Mr. Hosier’s property and Mr. Stuart’s property.
“Mr. Stuart has taken responsibility, apologized, and offered to reasonably compensate Mr. Hosier for the loss of any trees on his property and to remediate any damage to the property,” Baity wrote. “Unfortunately, Mr. Hosier has refused to consider a reasonable resolution and instead chose to file a lawsuit seeking up to a million dollars.”
In the lawsuit, Ferguson pegged the value of the newly unimpeded views at $1 million or more.
He said in an interview that the “highly valued” views have increased the worth of Stuart’s land by that amount.
“It’s one of the best views in the state,” Ferguson said.
Pitkin County’s land-use code requires several steps for large-scale removal of trees with a 6-inch or larger diameter. Homeowners must undergo a review from a zoning officer, and present a site plan that shows the existing development and the number, type and size of the trees to be removed. A plan “for tree replacement and/or revegetation is also required,” among other steps, according to a county overview on tree removal.
Asked if Stuart or Giannetti got the necessary approval from the county, Baity said Friday that he wasn’t sure.
“That’s a good question, and I don’t know answer to that,” he said. “I think the answer is no, I don’t believe so, but because of the landscaper’s involvement, we don’t know what he may or may not have done.
“We wouldn’t have been responsible for pulling permits.”
A message left with Giannetti was not returned. All told, his company removed 24 tons of “hacked-up trees,” the lawsuit says.
Hosier’s Wikipedia entry describes him as an American intellectual property attorney and a patent litigator. According to a 2004 article in the Portland, Ore.-based Willamette Week, he earned for a single client more than $1 billion in licensing fees.
In 2011, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FIRA) awarded Hosier and Brush Creek Capital, a family investment company, a combined $30.2 million in compensatory damages from a Citigroup subsidiary group.
The case concerned Citigroup Global Markets’ management of hedge funds, and the legal news website Law360.com reported that FIRA also ordered the subsidiary to pay more than $20 million in punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and other court costs.
Hosier is a member of the board of directors at The Aspen Institute, where the Doerr-Hosier Center bears his name.
The website of Stuart’s law firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, describes him as “one of the most active and accomplished trial attorneys in the U.S. and abroad.” His practice focuses on “complex financial and business litigation in the U.S. and worldwide,” the website says.
Baity declined comment on specific accusations in the lawsuit, saying his firm’s investigation is in its early stages. Part of the investigation will likely include a land survey of the properties involved.
“It’s a little confusing to me where the property line is,” Baity said. “Mr. Hosier’s property has never been built on and the property line has a zig zag to it.”
He said he also will be consulting tree experts to place a dollar value on the aspens that were removed.
“We are willing to come up with a fair amount,” Baity said, adding that he believes the tree removal was an “innocent mistake.”