Chainsaws are scheduled take down two large sweetgum trees in Ashland's Plaza first thing this morning as part of a major renovation of the city's central gathering place. The site will not remain treeless for long, however, as plans call for the planting of nine new trees that city officials say are better adapted to paved surroundings, more resistant to disease and less likely to drop branches on people.
The removal of the mature sweetgum or liquidambar trees — one 90 feet tall and the other 60 feet in height — won't go unnoticed, as several Ashland residents will be on hand, says Bryan Holley, a former city Tree Commission member. They will protest what Holley calls the "early morning chainsaw massacre" of beloved trees, whose only fault is that they're old.
Holley has directed an email campaign toward city officials, asking that they let the trees live out their normal lives or at least to have a 90-day moratorium for further review.
But city Public Works Department engineer Scott Fleury says one tree is diseased and in failing health and the other is "the wrong tree in the wrong environment." Neither will be transplanted.
As part of a $140,000 Plaza renovation, six trees will be removed, to be replaced in 2013 by proven urban-hardy species: flame amur maple, Persian Parrotia, forest green Italian oak and village green Zelkova, says Fleury.
The new trees won't have the size of the sweetgums but will grow to become close to 3 feet in diameter, about the same size as the sweetgums.
"They are the largest caliber trees that can reasonably be expected to survive (on the site)," Fleury said. "Bigger ones have a smaller chance."
Holley said the tree-cutting was "assumed to be a done deal, so silent" and asked, "why the urgency?"
But the decision was reached only after numerous meetings and assessments, according to City Administrator Dave Kanner. The city arborist and the landscape contractor on the project, Covey Pardee, both recommended removal, Kanner said in an email.
The Tree Commission requested another opinion from an independent landscape contractor, which also said the trees should be removed. Following that assessment, Kanner wrote, the Tree Commission joined the consensus, as did the City Council, after two study sessions.
In all, Kanner said, there were four "public workshops/input sessions," along with presentations to the council.
"The process and the project itself have been publicized extensively in the newspapers, in TV and radio news coverage and on the City web site," Kanner wrote. "The project has been reviewed and endorsed by the Planning Commission, the Historic Commission and the Tree Commission."
Tree removal, originally planned for Dec. 20, was postponed a week, at the request of merchants, so as not to interfere with Christmas shopping. That delay, says Kanner, means work on the Plaza likely will extend into early March, when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival opens.
Holley said Thursday that removing the trees may be the "safe and legal" approach, but in failing to protect the trees, city officials are also failing to protect the community's culture.
"Using that argument, you would condemn a lot of sycamores," he said of disease and faulty roots. "We've become a culture that doesn't respect trees. The right way is no longer the Ashland way."
Responding to rumors and a guest opinion by Isabeau Vollhardt in the Daily Tidings, suggesting that a goal of the Plaza redesign was to make it less welcoming to the homeless by removing benches and installing more paving, Kanner said there will be benches and there's no intent to keep homeless people out.
"I don't know where the idea comes from ... . It hasn't come up on any discussions I've had with or heard among any of the City Councilors (or in) design meetings," said Kanner in the email.
The redesign will cover more of the Plaza with concrete or pavers to alleviate the problem of crowds trampling the lawn and landscaping. It will incorporate a space for music or other acts, with the area also including a low wall that can be used for seating.
A ceramic mosaic designed by Ashland artist Sue Springer will cover the wall with colorful, curving, abstract shapes in a flowing pattern.
Kanner said demolition work on the Plaza is scheduled to begin Jan. 2, with the contractor beginning construction on Jan. 15.
Ashland resident Yehudit Shemesh, in an email to the media and city officials, called the tree removal "incredibly disrespectful of the concerns of the many Ashland residents who oppose the cutting of these trees."
"It's very easy to cut down a tree here, 3 trees there, and 5 others in another neighborhood," Shemesh wrote, "and over the course of 5 years, the tree population has been reduced with noticeable effects on the microclimates (and) visual beauty."
Responding to complaints, Fleury noted, "People don't want to see the Plaza change so they use whatever they can to stop it. Trees are almost sacred to people here ... but the last thing we want is a diseased tree in a public space with branches falling off."
A Modesto ash and Japanese maple in the Plaza were already cut down this fall. The maple, according to the city website, died from sun scalding and people climbing on it. Tree are being removed only on the triangular Plaza, and not along the park strip on East Main Street. Removal will cost $2,000 and is being carried out by Bartlett Tree Service of Medford.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.