Berkeley tenant fights to preserve garden in ongoing dispute with landlords, property managers

Nicole White/Staff

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A Berkeley tenant for 35 years, Wally Gorell has spent much of his time establishing a large garden surrounding his property — one that is now in danger of being forcefully removed by landlords and property managers.

Contractors and landscapers arrived at Gorell’s property on the 2400 block of Virginia Street about 10 a.m. Tuesday, wielding chainsaws and a wood chipper, with the intent of removing portions of his garden, Gorell said. With the help of friends and neighbors, however, Gorell was able to avert the landscapers, who were attempting to repaint the exterior of the building, while Berkeley Police Department officers looked on.

Gorell was initially notified of plans to remove his garden two years ago as part of a larger project to renovate his building. In response, Gorell posted signs advertising a petition to support his garden and received more than 500 signatures in about 10 days, he said in an email.

That same year, the Rent Stabilization Board and city Staff Attorney Matthew Siegel convened a mediation session to resolve the dispute between Gorell, the property owners’ group and the property’s management, K&S Real Estate Management Company. At the meeting, the landlords and property management did not opt to sign a mediation agreement, whereas Gorell did.

“Neither party needs to settle the arbitration,” said rent board Commissioner James Chang. “The Rent Stabilization Board cannot force any one party to sign.”

But in October, the law office of Bornstein & Bornstein sent a letter to Gorell on behalf of the property owners’ group and the property management, requesting that a list of demands be met so that the building’s exterior could be painted.

The list included the removal of all irrigation systems and potted plants, as well as an ultimatum stating that if demands were not met by Monday, the property owners’ group would hire a contractor to remove the garden.

“Removing all of my plants and irrigation systems clearly has nothing to do with painting the building,” Gorell said.

Gorell also said that if he were to remove all plants within 4 feet of the building, almost two-thirds of his garden would be gone.

K&S, Bornstein & Bornstein and the property owners’ group could not be reached for comment as of press time.

During his time as a resident in his current home, Gorell said, he has had relatively no landlord problems until recently but has now filed for a personal harassment restraining order against his landlords.

Asa Dodsworth, a city rent board commissioner, emailed Gorell in response to his request for assistance, stating that his case was very strong and also a common one in Berkeley.

“I really don’t understand what’s going on, and they are not being helpful,” Gorell said. “I’ve requested many times to cooperate, and they’ve been completely unresponsive.”
According to Harvey Kletz, an attorney who has given legal advice to Gorell, if action is taken against the garden, it could possibly result in more than $50,000 worth of damages.

“Mr. Gorell has connected with numerous contractors that unequivocally note that nothing has to be cut down in order to paint the building,” Kletz said. “I’m at loss to tell you exactly what their real motivation is and what they’re prepared to do.”

K&S and Bornstein & Bornstein have not returned any of his calls or emails, according to Kletz.

“If they come back … I hope I have a sufficient amount of friends to back them off. It’s been extremely unpleasant to go through this, and I have been badly shaken by it,” Gorell said. “It’s not something that I would want anyone else to go through.”

Elaina Provencio covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected].