Updated Dec. 9
A contractor for The town of Tisbury has cut down several trees at 55 West William St., the former site of a historic house razed in November. Among the trees taken down was an elm highlighted in past Martha’s Vineyard Commission deliberations as a tree worth saving.
Originally slated to be affordable housing, 55 West Williams St. was subsequently targeted as a location for temporary classrooms for students displaced during the $55 million Tisbury School project. However, Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande confirmed on Tuesday what Tisbury school committee chair Amy Houghton previously told The Times, that the site will instead be a construction staging area for the school project. Grande also said the site is under consideration as the possible home for a new town hall. Town land off High Point Lane is also under such consideration, Grande said, specifically the hillside behind the modular buildings that make up the board of health and building department offices.
Grande said the old iron fence from the 55 West William St. property was saved and is in storage. DPW director Kirk Metell said the fence was preserved at the request of historic commission chair Harold Chapdelaine, and is being kept at the DPW yard. When asked Tuesday who recommended trees at the property be cut down, Grande said the decision was made by Metell, who had consulted somebody knowledgeable on trees. Grande also noted Metell was Tisbury’s tree warden.
When asked if Metell had any credentials to be a tree warden, Grande said he believed Metell might have taken a course.
“I’m not trained in trees,” Metell said. He said he had been signed up for a certified tree warden course, but was unable to attend, and is now slated for another class. He said the class is typical of what DPW directors and highway superintendents take.
Grande said there were no emails, and no report, to back up the recommendation to remove the trees. When asked about the elm specifically, Grande recalled the person who made the recommendation to remove it and other trees was conservation commission chair Tom Robinson. In a telephone interview Wednesday night, after The Times had gone to press, Robinson confirmed he did evaluate the trees at 55 West William Street. Metell said the decision to take down trees was made at a May meeting he had with Grande, Robinson, town clerk Hillary Conklin, and building commissioner Ross Seavey.
“It was noted that some of the trees had a lot of wind damage,” Metell said. This was true of spruces on the property, and of the elm, he said.
“The elm had damage toward the top,” Metell said. “That elm was sitting atop the old cesspool.”
Metell said for safety reasons the cesspool needed to be filled in.
The American elm is the state tree of Massachusetts. Tim Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum, told The Times the American elm is susceptible to Dutch elm disease, a fungus carried by beetles that causes the tree to clog its own circulatory system in defense of itself. Dutch elm disease can be spotted on elms in two ways, Boland said. In early summer, branch ends can be inspected for a type of limpness called “flagging.” Also, some trees weep fluid and produce a dark stain around the truck called “slime flux.” Dutch elm is a common killer of American elm trees, Boland said. Nevertheless, he said the trees are fast-growing, and sometimes exhibit resistance to the disease.
“There are trees that can persist and have some natural resistance,” Boland said.
Boland also said aside from trees that are naturally resistant, disease-resistant hybrids are on the market now. One type that came to his mind was developed from a disease-resistant specimen found in the Washington, D.C., area. Large examples of elms can be found in a few places on the Vineyard, though several have been cut down in recent years, Boland said. He also said elms are best pruned to make sure the limbs grow in a sturdy manner. He described the tree as a great choice in a climate-changing world because outside of Dutch elm disease, the trees are very tough, and resist wind.
Boland had advice on how to best decide whether to keep an elm on your property. “You should have a certified arborist look at it,” he said.
It’s unclear if anyone identified disease in the elm at 55 West William, or found any other problems with the tree.
Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Linda Sibley, who was quoted in minutes as being in favor of preserving the elm in particular, said, “That’s sort of disappointing that the town would do that.”
When asked if Robinson was a certified arborist, Metell said, “I’m not sure if he’s a certified arborist or not.”
Robinson, the former longtime owner of Island Timber, told The Times he has a degree in forestry and has been a certified arborist but has let that certification lapse. He confirmed recommending trees be removed from the property but not necessarily for the reasons outlined by Metell.
Robinson said there were large Norway spruces that he believed would eventually topple.
“Sooner or later those trees would load up with snow and fall over,” he said.
Robinson also recommended the removal of the elm based on where it was located and what the ground around it would be subjected to when, as he understood at the time, heavy equipment came in to install modular classrooms.
“If that tree was on a corner of the property instead of where it was, I would have recommended they save it,” he said.
Given where it was situated, Robinson said he expected the ground would get heavily compacted and this would damage the elm’s roots and lead to its decline. For its size, he called it “remarkable” and suspected it was a volunteer tree as opposed to a purposefully planted tree.
Metell said he plans to secure a certified arborist to heavily trim two trees near the road. The trimming would be meant to help preserve the trees. Robinson said those trees by the road were lindens.
In a follow-up email, Metell wrote that Tea Lane Nursery owner Matt Tobin was also consulted about the trees. “Once again it was confirmed that the trees on this lot could be removed,” Metell wrote.
Tobin couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. Tobin’s online biography describes him as “a graduate of the Massachusetts Green School, and … a Massachusetts Certified Nurseryman.”
In addition to his pending course, Metell wrote, “I read several articles published by both Massachusetts Arborists Assoc. (MAA) and Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA) monthly. I couple that with calling local tree companies looking for advice; I have frequent conversations with the former town tree warden. I contract only licensed and insured tree removal companies to assist my department.”
Metell noted that elms were once common, but Dutch elm disease took its toll. “They are fast-growing, growing three to six feet per year,” he wrote. “They are a wonderful shade tree, but lack strength, and are prone to breakage.”
Updated with comments from Tom Robinson.