West Tisbury selectmen hear plan to cut library trees

The library building committee has asked to cut down 11 Norway maple trees around the current town library, Howes House and Field Gallery. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

West Tisbury selectmen at their regular meeting on Wednesday, September 19, discussed the potentially sensitive issue of cutting down a number of large trees — some possibly 100 years old — as part of the new library project.

The library building committee, with the backing of the library trustees, first approached selectmen last month with a request to cut down 11 Norway maple trees around the current town library, Howes House, and the Field Gallery.

At first the building committee proposed a warrant article for the special town meeting next month asking for funding for the removal of the trees. They have since withdrawn the article and will now fund the tree removal from their budget.

The plan is to remove the trees and plant new, younger trees around 10 to 15 feet high and also create a new rain garden along the edge of the new parking area that will use bio-swales to stop potential pollutants from reaching Mill Brook.

The library building committee identified 11 trees for removal; eight on the Field Gallery property, which the town owns, two behind the Howes House and one at the entrance to the library along State Road.

Norway maples are not indigenous to Martha’s Vineyard or North America and are classified as an invasive species. They release chemicals that discourage undergrowth and create bare, muddy conditions immediately under the tree, according to those familiar with the species.

Prior to their regular meeting September 19, selectmen made a site visit to the library along with several library trustees, tree warden Jeremiah Brown, members of the town historical commission and staff members of the Polly Hill Arboretum.

After the group crossed the street for the regular meeting at town hall, selectmen chairman Cynthia Mitchell said she understood that all 11 trees must come down at some point.

But Ms. Mitchell also noted that some townspeople might have an emotional reaction if all the trees were cut down at once, and said selectmen should study the situation more and proceed with caution. “Even though it was pointed out by basically everyone in a position to know that certain trees probably should come down, to the casual non-expert observer these are big, beautiful trees and have been there for quite a while,” she said.

Mr. Brown said that, in his opinion, all the trees needed to come down over time. But he also cautioned selectmen to think about the impact on the area and people’s attachment to the trees.

“I think in the long run all of those maple trees should come down…but if you mow all those trees down now — its just my opinion — the public is going to freak,” he said. “This is what I have been hearing: nobody is going to want that right away.”

Mr. Brown also noted cutting down certain trees will expose some trees that will be completely bare on one side facing the library.

Polly Hill Arboretum executive director Tim Boland said the rain garden wouldn’t work if the trees weren’t removed. He said the tree roots will lift the interlocking pavers in the parking lot and the bio-swales would be clogged.

“The big point for us is to have those rain gardens do what they are engineered to do…it is a very vital element of the whole proposal and helps to prevent pollution to the Mill Pond and Tisbury Great Pond,”

He said the rain garden would naturally filter out things like petroleum, hydrocarbons, gasoline and diesel.

John Hoff, owner of the Middletown Gardens, volunteered to donate several new trees to the replanting effort. He said he fully supported cutting down the older trees for a variety of reasons.

“We get to borrow the view of the sculptures of the Field Gallery,” he said. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone… I volunteer to donate these trees to help people digest what is about to happen and has to happen, in my opinion.”

Selectman Richard Knabel said he was conflicted by the plan to remove the trees. He said he is pleased that the new parking lot would be used to reduce storm water runoff and clean it up before it reached the watershed.

On the other hand, he said, he worried how the removal of the trees would affect the Field Gallery, which the town purchased in January.

“[It] was purchased because it had a particular atmosphere and environment and peacefulness and serenity which is very different from the atmosphere in a parking lot,” he said. “And those trees maintain that entire environment.”

Mr. Knabel said he agreed the trees identified would have to come down at some point, but recommended the town come up with a plan to remove them over the course of years, not all at once.

“It is a change that I think — particularly in West Tisbury, a town that does not appreciate big change or rapid ones — is a mistake,” he said. “I think people have come to see the Field Gallery as a landmark and expect a certain environment over there; and I think this is too drastic to let it all happen at once.”

Mr. Boland said the new trees would grow quickly enough so the screening would return within three to five years. “[At] Polly Hill we have to make these difficult decisions all the time,” he said. “We do not like to remove trees, and when we do it we do it for a particular reason.

“I think there is a way to combine the planting with vision and the long view and saying: yes, this is drastic, but we are dealing with it, we are putting these trees back in and let’s think about what this will look like in six years instead of from the guttural level.”

Selectman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter recommended that two of the more damaged trees near the Howes House be removed immediately. He said he was uncomfortable removing the other trees because the plans for the rain garden, or the removal of the trees, were never brought to selectmen for discussion.

“To me they are part of an old New England town,” Mr. Manter said. “You have the church and the town hall and the gas station and the trees are part of it… I like the plan from Jeremiah [Brown] where we sort of phase them out.”

Tom Clark, the grounds manager for Polly Hill, agreed. “The trees are one of the elements that create a classic New England picture,” he said. “We’re the beneficiaries of people who had the foresight to plant trees…. It’s on us to have the same foresight to plant for future generations.”

In the end selectmen asked Mr. Brown to identify the trees that are in most dire shape and come up with a long-term tree removal plan. Selectmen said they would revisit the issue at a future meeting.