On Tuesday morning, April 8, workers with chainsaws leveled the community Christmas tree and by lunchtime, the tree was gone.
Bachrach said the tree was removed because it interfered with the in-ground irrigation system and an electrical box located within the tree’s canopy was creating a fire hazard. He said a better tree would be installed to replace it.
In his blog, Mayor Van Johnson wrote on the subject, and said “at close inspection it was revealed the tree was diseased and its large shallow root system was beginning to undermine the newly installed reuse irrigation system that services the park.”
The mayor noted that in the city’s ordinance 2011-01, “cedar trees are not patriarch nor protected trees and this particular one definitely was not historic. In fact, its removal followed the procedure as outlined in the ordinance for a danger/safety situation.”
According to Samuel Hand, Jr., an associate professor of agricultural sciences at
It is unknown whether the tree was a patriarch, which is defined under the ordinance as any tree with a diameter of at least 35 inches at four and a half feet above the ground, which is considered chest height. The Christmas tree was not measured to determine its status prior to removal.
Bellew wrote that dead limbs were falling out of the tree, that the tree was “a fire safety issue in power lines” and that the tree was “interfering with the reuse irrigation system.”
In his blog, Johnson further criticized the tree’s appearance. “To me the tree no longer resembled a Christmas tree, it looked more like one of those fried blooming onions that you get from food vendors at the annual Florida Seafood Festival, but that's just my opinion and certainly as demonstrated not the only opinion,” he wrote. “By the way, the tree couldn't be trimmed either or shaped to look like a Christmas tree without turning it into a bare-looking stick protruding out of the ground.”
In a telephone interview, Johnson later said that the tree had not been inspected by a qualified tree expert to determine if it was diseased.
Professor disputes safety issues
Geoff Hewell, chair of the tree committee, and City Administrator Betty Taylor Webb both said an arborist had not been consulted.
Hand, interviewed after the tree had been taken down, reviewed the tree removal application and accompanying photographs. He disagreed that the tree was a safety hazard and could not have been pruned.
Professor Hand, a registered consulting arborist with the American Society of Consulting Arborists and an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist, said the reasons given for removal of the tree were inadequate and the situation was not an emergency. According to Hand, if the irrigation system and electrical box are being properly maintained, the tree should not have interfered with either.
“The threat of dead limbs could have been resolved by pruning the tree,” he said. “Trees are trimmed away from power lines all the time. I don't know if there was some reason why this tree could not be properly pruned to give safe clearance, if needed. (Neither) the photographs, nor the literature, indicate that pruning was not possible.
Hand said that a properly maintained electrical box, not in direct contact with the tree, should not present a fire hazard. “If contact with lines was an issue, relocating the lines or appropriate clearance pruning might have been an option to removal,” he said. “Unless there was a short in the box or wiring, the location next to the tree would not normally be an issue as we up light trees all the time as well as string lights in them.”
He said he was unclear as to what the problem was with the irrigation system. “If a root were pressing on a line, you could possibly have pruned the root if it were not a main structural root,” Hand said. “If the water lines are not cracked, and are in good sound condition, roots will not enter them and cause stoppage.”
The irrigation system is only a couple years old, and is designed and maintained by the city to distribute re-used water.
“The tree had to be moved or be destroyed. We decided to move it.,” she said. “(Mr. Joyner) nurtured and watered it and it took hold. Everyone was so thrilled to have a living tree so we didn’t have to cut one down every year. It was our own special Christmas tree; nobody else had one like it.”
The Christmas tree became the centerpiece for the Downtown Improvement Association’s Christmas Extravaganza, when carolers paraded at night through the streets with flashlights in a “Parade of Lights.” The procession ended at the tree and climaxed with a tree lighting ceremony.
Joyce Estes said the tree was used as a fundraiser as part of the effort to restore Chapman Auditorium. People could buy a light for $5 and businesses could purchase a point of the star on top for $100. Estes said the restoration movement in the beginning purchased commercial lights for the tree, but they were either lost or stolen after several years.
‘A distinct focal point’ for park
In 2008, at the invitation of the city, graduate students in urban design from the
In their final report, the students wrote, “(
“By placing small trees in two groups, the first between Avenue D and the Parking lot, and the second between Avenue E and the parking lot, we felt we could meet both needs. These trees would serve to frame the view throughout parking lot, while keeping each avenue's view open. We explored three different options for the site's design, focusing on the idea of flow, mimicking the
The shade trees envisioned were never planted. Although signs designating Apalachicola as a “
Bill Spohrer, who has played a pivotal role in the restoration of
“I consider it to be a tragedy especially for the children and for the community,” he said. “It was the heart of our Christmas celebration. It’s something we give to the children every year. I’m sure the intentions were good, but the sadness is that there probably should have been more discussion and communication before arbitrarily destroying a significant part of our town’s annual holiday celebration.”
According to documents provided by the city, the tree will be replaced with a 14-foot Christmas tree from “Quincy Tree Farm.” The same documents indicate that Tommy Ward of Thirteen Mile Seafood and Bachrach will oversee planting the new tree.
City documents said the “Main Street Design Committee” has agreed to water and care for the new tree. Tree committee member Caroline Weiler said Tommy Ward; owner of Thirteen Mile Seafood will pay for the replacement tree.
Jody Rosenbaum, who serves on the board of
Weiler appears to be the only member of the tree committee who realized the tree was about to be destroyed. She said she trusted the documentation presented by Bellew that the tree’s removal was warranted.
She said Bellew “may not have had the expertise but had the authority to order the tree removed. To me this seemed practical. It just makes sense.”
Removed from P & Z agenda
P & Z Members Robin Vroegop and Lynn Spohrer said the tree was never discussed at a meeting. Vroegop said the removal of the tree was on the original agenda for the Dec. 9 P&Z meeting but was removed.
The tree’s removal was also never discussed by the city commission although in a telephone interview, City Administrator Betty Taylor Webb said Bellew consulted each city commissioner individually.
As designee for the city under the tree ordinance, Bellew has the authority to order a tree removed if there is a safety issue. Due process can be circumvented in the case of an emergency, but Hand, the only expert known to have been consulted about the tree, said no emergency existed.
“I would have to know more to understand why it needed to come out ‘for safety reasons,’ “ said Hand, noting that he had shared the tree removal application and supporting photographs with Stan Rosenthal, University of Florida/Leon County Extension Forester, and the two had agreed.
At the most recent P&Z meeting on April 14, about 10 angry
Vroegop asked for a special meeting to discuss the tree. Chair Tom Daly said he would rather not hold a meeting to discuss a single topic.
“I have questions as a member of the tree committee about how that happened because that was a patriarch tree clearly and it never came before the board,” Vroegop said. “I think it is urgent. Since there are so many questions about the process and how this happened, I think we ought to have a special workshop on it. There’s a process that’s supposed to be followed and to my knowledge it wasn’t followed.”
P&Z member Bachrach said he thought “it’s a good idea to have somebody here who can explain why the tree was taken down.”
Tree committee member Beth Wright also questioned the process that led to the tree being cut down. “If something went wrong, we need to discuss how to fix it. There are fines and tree replacement requirements in the ordinance,” she said.
A member of the audience asked Webb, “Why don’t you explain since you are the one who did it?”
Webb said she was not prepared to comment. Vroegop’s motion for a special meeting failed.
Lynn Spohrer then moved to discuss the tree and the tree committee at the next regular meeting of the P&Z. That motion passed.
“My problem is this was the community’s Christmas tree and they should have been brought together to discuss this,” said Bruce Hall, also on the tree committee. “It was the only tree in that park. I think a community Christmas tree that you have celebrated around for years is important.”