WARWICK — Lawrence Morra likes his trees. And he likes the squirrels and birds that make them home.
That is why Morra was so upset in 2017, when the state Department of Transportation at the behest of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation felled nine mature trees on his property as part of the runway extension project.
"It was like an emotional bomb was dropped on me," Morra said July 12, two years to the date the trees were cut down.
Morra filed suit this month in U.S. District Court, alleging that the state violated his due process rights by cutting down the trees without fair and just compensation. He is seeking the money he says he is owed, as well as payment for the pain and suffering it caused. His complaint puts his losses at "easily upwards" of $1 million.
Though he received $19,000, "It won't even touch what they did," he says.
Morra's parents — the late Frank and Argentina Morra — had the Cape-style house at 190 Cole Ave. in Warwick built in 1951 while his mother was pregnant with Lawrence, he says. The trees held memories of his childhood. He planted the blue spruce out front with his father. The silver maple in the backyard, with a trunk so wide it was hard to get his arms around, he planted for his mom.
"The squirrels loved it," he says. Then there was the Norwegian maple and the oak tree. Gone.
Morra says Dan Porter, vice president of planning for the Airport Corporation, approached him in 2015 to offer him the fair market value for his home. Porter showed him a map that indicated four trees needed to come down.
Morra contemplated the animals living on his quarter-acre lot that sits at the edge of the runway and how they would miss him if he agreed, he says.
"I told them I'm not interested. They're just going to wipe it all out. This is where I can die," he said.
The state Department of Transportation issued an administrative order condemning the property that said the trees had to come down as a Federal Aviation Administration obstruction, he says. Not even 12 hours later he heard Northeastern Tree Service arrived around 7 a.m., accompanied by the police, he says. He never even left the house as they cut the trees down and ground down the stumps.
In a filing in state Superior Court, he argues that they removed the trees in retaliation for him not agreeing to sell them the home.
Morra has been outspoken about his objections to the airport expansion plans, particularly as it pertains to trees and nature.
In a 2015 letter to the editor that ran in the Warwick Beacon, he wrote, "They are using tactics and an approach that can be considered a form of assault or warfare upon me, and other people here along with the natural environment. The trees, animals and fauna are being stripped away like so much chaff, which diminishes the value and integrity of the neighborhood, thereby disrespecting the lives of its people."
According to a tree survey Morra paid to have done, the state determined that at least six trees exceeded the 49-foot height limit dictated by the FAA. Morra argues there were less destructive options they could have pursued, such as bringing the tops of the trees down, as they did with his neighbor's maple.
The survey appraised the value of the destroyed trees at $64,000.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation declined comment because the litigation. A spokesman for the Rhode Island Airport Corporation never returned a message seeking comment.
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