Edgartown climbs down from decision on beloved pagoda tree

Photo by Michael Cummo

Updated 3 pm, Wednesday, November 12

Bowing to public outcry, the Edgartown conservation commission, meeting jointly with selectmen, voted unanimously Monday to reconsider its earlier approval for a private homeowner to build a garage near an iconic pagoda tree, one of the largest and oldest specimens of that variety of tree in America.

When Thomas Milton of Edgartown took time on one of his worldly voyages to preserve a cutting from a pagoda tree, and carried it back from China across the globe in a flower pot to the parcel on South Water Street where he was building a stately home befitting his status as a successful sea captain, it’s a fair bet he never imagined how much Edgartown would come to love his tree or the stir it would cause.

Captain Milton planted the tree, known then as a Chinese Huai tree (sophora japonica to tree scientists) in 1837, according to a bronze plaque near the base of the tree. According to various scientific studies, the lifespan of a typical urban tree, besieged by sidewalks, pavement, compacted soil and limited sunlight is about a tenth the lifespan of the same species in a rural setting. Yet the pagoda tree stands tall and relatively healthy at the ripe old age of 177.

Over the years, the tree has been walked by, climbed on, gazed at, and admired by generations of Edgartown residents and visitors. Its root system has been paved over, bricked over, driven over, and sealed under cement sidewalks. Though it sits on private land, it has become such a storied part of the town’s history that many people have come to think of it as if they owned it, in a collective sense.

When CarMax, Inc. CEO Thomas Folliard, the new owner of the house Captain Milton built, unveiled plans to build a new two-story, two-car carriage house style garage to go along with a large home restoration project and a new pool on the quarter-acre lot currently assessed at $7.7 million, the conservation commission questioned plans that called for the garage to be situated less than 25 feet from the beloved tree and heard not a peep.

Silent majority

Through four separate public meetings of the Edgartown conservation commission, no one came to speak in opposition, according to conservation commission members Christina Brown and Jeff Carlson. Commission members say they carefully considered the plans. Patrick Ahearn, the architect hired by contractor Norman Rankow, devised a cantilevered garage structure entirely above the existing ground surface, using support beams anchored in the existing foundation, and two new helical piles to support the corner of the garage nearest the Pagoda Tree. The design left the root system open to the air. Mark DiBiase, an arborist representative for Bartlett Tree Service hired by Mr. Rankow, devised a plan to water the tree, provide nutrients, and aerate the compacted soil.

In what he called a “tree preservation and remediation” plan, Mr. DiBiase recommended a series of precautions to protect the tree during construction, after reviewing plans with Mr. Rankow during a visit to the site.

“I am glad to see that it has been revised to include only two helical piles to help minimize the impact on the existing root system of the subject tree,” Mr. Dibiase wrote in a letter to Mr. Rankow. “In order to also help minimize root damage from the proposed footings, the pile locations should be hand dug or excavated with the use of an air spade. This will help preserve any larger roots that may be encountered and allow for some shifting of the final locations. Any roots that need to be cut shall be hand pruned with the use of sharp hand pruners and a hand saw.”

David Hawkins, a consulting arborist hired to advise town tree warden Stuart Fuller, reviewed the plan, and determined that it would adequately protect the tree.

“Both the cultivation/aeration process and the fertilizer application will help improve the soil and the tree’s ability to counteract any negative effects of the construction and encourage root growth in the area,” Mr. Hawkins wrote in his review for the town.

“We didn’t get any feedback from the public, throughout all those public sessions, which we were kind of surprised about,” Mr. Carlson said at Monday’s meeting. “You’re trying to make things work within the parameters of the bylaw. All the arborists seem to concur that it was going to be okay, and since none of us are arborists, we kind of have to go with their recommendation.”

Based on the opinions of the two tree experts, the conservation commission unanimously approved the plan on October 29.

As word began to filter around town people began to talk. A story published online in the Vineyard Gazette Thursday ignited a small brushfire among online commenters.

Tree bark

Edgartown selectmen invited the conservation commission members to join them at their regular Monday meeting, and asked them to rescind their vote.

“In going through the material,” said chairman Art Smadbeck, “I kept seeing words like ‘minimize root damage, the impact would be minimal.’ Basically, what it was speaking to me about was that something could happen to this tree. I know you can come up with all kinds of reasons how you can mitigate it, but when you start using words like mitigation, lessening the impact, that’s really the issue.”

Mr. Smadbeck said instead of mitigation, the debate should be framed by the effect of the construction near the tree, and the effect of not allowing the construction.

“If you do nothing there, that’s better than doing something there, no matter how good the plans,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “If there was a 1 in 100 chance that doing this could harm that tree, would it be worth it?”

Selectman Margaret Serpa, long a champion of the town’s shade trees, said she doesn’t want anything to happen to the pagoda tree on her watch.  “I don’t want to be associated with something happening to that tree,” she said. “This tree is irreplaceable, and I think we need to keep that in our minds. I didn’t see anything that was reassuring to me that the health of that tree was going to be protected. I didn’t feel comfortable.”

Selectman Michael Donaroma was out of town and did not attend Monday’s meeting, but he told the board he would have had to recuse himself, because his landscaping company might be contracted to work at the site.

For the defense

At Monday’s meeting, Mr. Rankow, owner of Colonial Reproductions, Inc. offered a vigorous defense of the plan to protect the tree. He read a statement in which he said the new owners have fashioned a unique public/private stewardship program.

“Up until now, the pagoda tree has not had any meaningful, monitored maintenance and has been surrounded by asphalt or concrete and has been subject to heavy vehicular traffic, underground oil contamination and benign neglect,” Mr. Rankow said. “For the first time in the tree’s life, we now have an opportunity on privately owned land and at no expense to the town, to provide nourishment, maintenance and a monitoring program to maintain the health of the tree.”

Later, Mr. Rankow said that commenters responding to an article posted online in the Gazette were uninformed.

“I don’t think the people making the comments have bothered to look at the process,” Mr. Rankow told selectmen. “We have vetted this very well with experts, and used their criteria. The people making the comments, and some of them are very rude, don’t know and understand the construction process that we’re proposing there.”

That didn’t sit well with selectmen.

“That’s your opinion,” Ms. Serpa said.

“I think the townspeople of Edgartown are pretty well informed,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

Plan uprooted

Bowing to the public outcry, the conservation commission, meeting formally in joint session with the selectmen on Monday, voted unanimously to reconsider its vote.

Conservation commission member Christina Brown said that, although the commission had approved the plans, the order has not yet been signed and registered with the town clerk.

“It’s not done,” Ms. Brown said. “I’m sorry people didn’t come to the public hearings. I would welcome, I think the conservation commission would welcome, another round of much more detailed discussion.”

The conservation commission plans to discuss the issues at its next regularly scheduled meeting on December 3.

Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, is one of those who weighed in against the plan online and in a telephone interview. Mr. Boland said disturbing the tree’s root system, which likely extends outward about as far as the tree’s leafy canopy, would be risky.

“The problem with any type of construction in and around the roots of a tree, particularly a tree of that age which has probably lived 85 to 90 percent of its lifespan, any type of work is going to cause the tree to decline,” Mr. Boland said in a phone interview with The Times prior to Monday’s meeting. “Typically, a tree of that size is not going to be very responsive to efforts to revitalize it, or make it flourish, like have a second wind.”

Mr. Folliard could not be reached for comment on the uproar.