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Heritage tree removal still stirring up conflict

April 1st, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Posted by Andrew Hamlin

Blue Atlas Cedar, by J and R Photography via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The February removal of the heritage Blue Atlas Cedar tree at North Beacon Hill’s Garden House continues to generate controversy. Two local arborists who examined the Blue Atlas contacted the Beacon Hill Blog to give additional testimony about the tree’s condition and the events preceding the tree’s removal. The arborists expressed concern that statements by Garden House trustee and rental agent Carolyn Nickerson in an earlier Beacon Hill Blog article (“Removal of Garden House Blue Atlas Cedar surprises community,” Andrew Hamlin, March 3) inaccurately represented the professional advice given by the arborists and the resulting decisions made to remove the tree.

In the March 3 article, Nickerson stated:

“…We hired an arborist to climb and inspect the entire tree to evaluate its health and possible remedies [for $400]. It was his opinion that the tree needed to be thinned, bolted, tied in various places to keep it from dropping other limbs. (I think that estimate was $1000, maybe less.) Before making a decision we had a second arborist inspect the tree and give his opinion and write a report [on] what he thought should be done. On a danger scale of 1-10 the tree was a 9. Part of the tree hung over the neighbors’ house, part over the sidewalk and street and part over our lawn area where children and adults gather for various occasions.”

Local arborist Oliver Bailey said in an email to the blog: “We [Bailey and Sue Nicol] are the arborists who actually evaluated the tree and recommended preservation. The most damning inaccuracy [in the original story] is the ‘9 out of 10’ scoring on the tree evaluation (false). The entire Heritage Tree Committee and others are group emailing about how we scared the Garden House into cutting the tree down and this was devastating news for us both.”

Bailey continued: “I brought [Sue Nicol] in after completing my report to objectively review my report, inspect the tree and attach a letter stating her second opinion. She is a highly decorated and respected Consulting Arborist. She’s one of Plant Amnesty’s highest referred Arborists. In a nutshell she thought I was exactly right about the tree. Because I proposed a viable preservation plan in my report she added another idea which was to fence off the area directly below the tree on Garden House grounds. However, that was not an option on the public sidewalk, street, or neighbor’s property, all of which were directly under these massive 30″ diameter limbs (yes, diameter, not circumference!)”

Bailey added: “[An inaccuracy] was that I aerial inspected the tree for $400. It was actually $160. Garden House is a non-profit with steep monetary problems. I was always particularly gentle with them.”

Sue Nicol, in her own email, said: “Oliver asked me to assess the tree to confirm/reject his aerial inspection of the Cedar in question in terms of risk. He apparently does not have the Risk Assessment Certification, which I do. I reviewed Oliver’s report and met with him on the site to look at, and discuss the tree. I then wrote my report, backing up his assessment. We both felt that the tree was actively failing, was in a location with significant targets underneath it, had a decayed leader at the top which was supporting a great deal of weight, and needed several actions taken to reduce its risk.

“I wrote in my report,” Nicol continued, “that if the client refused to take on those actions, that the tree needed to be removed. I felt, and still feel, that this tree could not be left to fend for itself. The likelihood of continuing branch failure was too great to do nothing. I did not meet with the clients, since they were Oliver’s clients. Oliver was my client and he paid my bill.”

Oliver added: “The scoring using ‘A Photographic Guide to the Evaluation of Hazard Trees in Urban Areas’ uses a 12 point system. 1/3 of the score is for ‘failure potential’; 1/3 for ‘target rating’; and 1/3 for ‘size of part’. When I aerial inspected the tree I found, photographed and documented a massive tear in a main trunk from a previous failure. Little more than half the trunk remained to support many thousands of pounds of tree above it aiming directly at the public below. There was another injury supporting the entire tree top (also photographed and included in report). The tree rated a 9 out of 12 which you can see is drastically different than 9 out of 10.

“The arborist community knew there is no scoring system using 10 points,” he continued, referring to Nickerson’s statement to the Beacon Hill Blog that “On a danger scale of 1-10 the tree was a 9.”

Nickerson, reached by telephone, declined to comment further. Judith Juno, President of the Washington State Federation of Garden Clubs, owners of the Garden House, and Christine Wolf, Trustee and Garden Supervisor, did not respond to email queries by press time.

Asked if the tree was sick, Nicol responded: “If the definition of sick is having a disease, then the tree was not sick, except for its decayed top. Overall the tree was healthy. However, it was showing regular sudden branch loss of branches over 20 inches in diameter with healthy wood breaking. And there was a high likelihood that branches would land either on the roof of the home to the south or on the sidewalk, people, and/or cars to the west; or onto the events lawn to the north and east.

“Should it have been cut down? No, if the owners were willing and able to spend the money to preserve it adequately and take on the liability of additional branches falling without warning. Oliver could have done a good job of reducing the risk of this tree by cabling the longest branches and reducing a few of the heaviest ones. I would recommend that end weight be reduced to side branches.

“Would that have left us a still-magnificent tree? Probably.”

Bailey said that he offered to preserve the tree using the Cobra Cabling System, which involves using “dynamic polypropylene line” to keep a tree aloft, for $600, “less than half the cost I normally would on a tree like this. The materials would have cost $600. I really wanted them to keep the tree.”

“One thing I’m very disappointed about,” concluded Bailey, “is that the community offered to pay to preserve and maintain the tree. Nobody ever told me that. I would have been first in line as one of their Arborists. I suspect Garden House was shaken and after months of meeting and deliberation, just didn’t want the risk of getting someone killed.”

“The best thing to do,” finished Nicol, “would be to encourage the clients to plant a new tree in their garden and for everyone to learn how to be good tree stewards.”

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