A neighborhood petition drive has saved a large black cottonwood tree on Clay Street from being cut down by the city of Ashland — for now.
The Ashland Tree Commission unanimously voted Friday to not only spare the 200-year-old cottonwood, but to recommend it as the town's first Heritage Tree.
"I absolutely love this tree," said neighbor Adrienne Trunnell, whose husband, Gregg, is the chief petitioner. "It's amazing. Twenty people came to the Tree Commission meeting in support of keeping it — and commissioners talked about how, as kids, they used to climb it."
City planners had hoped to cut down the 75-inch-diameter tree as part of a plan to partition a 3.84-acre, L-shaped lot at 380 Clay St. The city had hoped to sell the .92-acre leg, on which the tree and an old farmhouse sits, and save the rest of the lot for a park.
But Gregg Trunnell believes the cottonwood has been loved by generations of Ashlanders since the pioneers arrived and should be spared.
He said it's not appropriate for the city to try to increase the land's value by chopping down a beloved tree and making the lot more developer-ready.
"Developers aren't interested if there's a big tree here," Trunnell said. "If the tree is a problem, it should be a problem for the developer. We asked that the city at least build around the tree."
City Planner Michael Pina said the city's tree-cutting and land-partition request has been put on hold so the Planning Department can look at all its options, but he denied the city is trying to increase the parcel's value by cutting down the tree.
"We don't believe we will make more money by removing the tree," said Pina. "It just makes it more suitable for development to be a blank lot. It's kind of hard for cottonwoods to live in an urban setting. They're notorious for breaking off limbs, and it might be unsafe to develop right up to it."
Tree Commissioner Tom Myers estimated the cottonwood's age at two centuries, meaning it sprouted about 40 years before white settlement in Ashland.
"It's in excellent health and everyone at the meeting was in favor of saving it," Myers said.
"The conflict is that some people believe affordable housing is more important than saving trees. Affordable housing should have open land nearby and everyone talked about the high value of the tree. It's a big, established heritage tree."
The petition, signed by 30 people, suggests the Ashland Parks Department buy the .92 acre for possible use as a park and community garden for the affordable, low-density and single-family housing that surrounds it.
"We don't object to growth and development," Adrienne Trunnell said. "It's just that (the tree) doesn't need to be taken out — and if there's a community garden here, it would serve everyone."
Linda Reid, city housing program specialist, said a developer might build affordable housing on that lot, but the city already has met its quota with the affordable housing across Villard Street from the tree, so it won't be a requirement of the sale.
But if the tree is spared, there won't be enough space on the acre parcel for housing, Reid said. The city land-use code requires property to be developed at 80 percent of its base density.
"It's magnificent," petitioner Elizabeth Warshaw said of the cottonwood. "We're nominating it for Tree of the Year. We have to recognize and save trees like this."
Myers, Trunnell and Warshaw lauded the 1800s farmhouse next to the tree, saying it should be revitalized and put to community uses, as was the old farmhouse at North Mountain Park.
Draping the tree in yellow and purple ribbon Monday, Judith McMillan, a resident of the affordable housing on Villard Street, said, "I'm the last one to say no to other people's blessings (building affordable homes), but we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can have both."
Myers, an arborist and former owner of Upper Limb-It Tree Service, said, "This is my favorite tree of every tree I climbed in 35 years. It definitely has the life force in it."
The City Council in 2004 passed an ordinance allowing mature trees with distinctive qualities or historical significance to be designated as Heritage Trees, as long as the owner gives permission. Removal requires a staff permit and stated reasons for removal.
This is the first nomination of a tree by residents and the first recommendation for a designation by the commission, Myers said. No one has used the ordinance yet because "the owner has to want it. Without the owner asking for it, nothing happens. ... I would suggest owners haven't asked for it because it would allow the city to dictate what's to be done to the tree."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.