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Quincy garden club petitions mayor for 2d opinion on elm

Seventy-five people signed a petition asking Mayor Thomas Koch to halt plans to cut down the 130-year-old Winfield elm. Seventy-five people signed a petition asking Mayor Thomas Koch to halt plans to cut down the 130-year-old Winfield elm. (Robert Knox for The Boston Globe)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / December 11, 2011
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QUINCY - Contending that a rare, century-plus-old American elm is healthy, opponents of the city’s plan to remove the tree from the site of a parking lot for the new Central Middle School are petitioning Quincy’s mayor to save it.

The Wollaston Garden Club garnered some 75 signatures at a holiday greens sale last weekend on a petition requesting Mayor Thomas Koch to halt plans to cut down the tree. “We believe this tree, the state tree of Massachusetts, is not diseased and therefore deserves to live,’’ the petition states.

“Our whole membership was ardently supportive,’’ garden club president Pat Artis said. “Everybody was signing. It went right down the line.’’

Pleas to preserve the tree have so far fallen on deaf ears. The mayor’s office recently refused permission for a certified arborist to go inside a construction fence to examine the tree. Mayoral spokesman Chris Walker said the city would not allow another arborist to examine the tree because an arborist working for the city has already determined that the tree is diseased and must be destroyed.

“We already have a report that it’s dying and has to come down,’’ Walker said. He said the arborist was hired by the city’s building agent, Tishman Construction.

The city acquired the property where the tree, known as the Winfield elm, has grown for more than 130 years as it readied a site to build a long-awaited middle school to replace the current, outworn Central Middle School. The tree is growing on the site of the 19th-century Winfield Estate.

But advocates for saving the tree questioned whether the examination of the tree was made by a certified expert.

“Only a state-certified arborist can make that decision,’’ said Heidi Kost-Gross, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Garden Clubs. Kost-Gross said public shade trees are protected by state law and some communities have “heritage tree’’ laws to provide additional protection to significant trees.

“One of our goals is conservation,’’ she said of the petition campaign. “The garden club is doing exactly what they should do, looking after the natural infrastructure of their town.’’

Concern for saving the tree has spread beyond the Wollaston neighborhood, said Lois Murphy of Houghs Neck, who wrote the mayor and other officials asking them to preserve the tree.

“When a city has a treasure like that and is just going to destroy it for a parking lot, it’s unthinkable. Trees clean our air; they’re not just decorative,’’ Murphy said. “It’s such a beautiful old tree. American elms grow for over 300 years. It survived the Dutch elm disease.’’

Murphy said the city should allow another arborist to examine the tree. “I want another opinion. It’s like going to the doctor.’’

The tree’s defenders were buoyed by the recent site visit by a noted conservationist and arborist.

“I’ve walked all around the tree,’’ said arborist Matthew Largess of Jamestown, R.I., after the city denied permission to go inside the fence. “I’m an expert with old trees, at a high level of expertise. It’s a very healthy tree that needs a little attention.’’

After studying some of the country’s oldest trees, Largess discovered the old-growth Oakland Forest in Rhode Island and led successful preservations efforts there and at Agawam’s Robinson State Forest.

Largess said some dead wood on the elm needs trimming. He disputed reports of fungus growing on the tree. “There is no sign of fungus. It’s lichen. That’s the sign of a healthy tree.’’

The tree’s defenders have also raised the issue of legal protection for valuable trees. Protection for public shade trees is provided by Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 87, which states that “the cutting down or removal of a public shade tree’’ cannot go forward without a public hearing first. However, the applicability of the law to the Winfield elm is questionable, because the tree is not on a public way.

City Councilor Kevin Coughlin, the author of Quincy’s tree ordinance, said nothing in the law protects the elm. He said he sought to include a “heritage tree’’ section to protect significant trees, but did not have the support. A section that requires a “tree report’’ for new developments seeking zoning changes does not apply because the school project does not need a variance.

Coughlin said Tuesday that he has also asked to see the arborist’s report on the elm.

Responding to a request by advocate Millicent Broderick of Hingham, the city’s chief lawyer, James Timmins, on Tuesday sent her a document dated Nov. 17, which presented reasons for the tree’s removal.

While it does not say the tree is dying, the report said the tree has “heart rot,’’ which can decay a tree’s interior “in months or move very slowly and take years.’’ Written by a representative of Gates, Leighton & Associates, a landscape architecture firm, the document also states that the tree is at a higher elevation than the new school and too close to the school without suffering fatal harm to its roots and canopy during the school’s construction.

However, Largess said Wednesday that the report was not done to professional standards and its author is not an arborist but a landscape architect “with little knowledge of trees.’’

“The tree can be saved,’’ he said. “They said it was too late at Oakland Forest and Robinson State Forest. But we saved those. It’s not too late till the tree is cut.’’

Largess said a plan to save the tree in conjunction with the school’s construction can be developed. “We can bring a team of arborists in. We can definitely save that tree.’’

Broderick also questioned the value of the city’s document, pointing to its recent date. “The arborist’s report upon which the fate of this tree was determined is the document we need,’’ she wrote in an e-mail.

Walker said Wednesday that the document is a “memo’’ put together after the fact, based on information gathered during the spring and summer. “The info was gathered and distributed to various folks on the project team in a few different ways.’’

Artis said her club’s petition has received an “enthusiastic’’ reception from church groups, community groups, and senior housing residents.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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