Iconic Downtown Tree Removed

By: Tim Wood

The iconic silver maple in front of 483 Main St. is gone. The tree was in poor condition, according to the property owner, and posed a safety hazard. TIM WOOD PHOTOS

Poor Condition Made It A Safety Hazard

CHATHAM – The iconic silver maple tree at 483 Main St. escaped the chainsaw back in 2015 after the owners sought permission to remove it; a huge branch had fallen down, and as it extended over the sidewalk as well as much of the courtyard in front of the commercial building, the tree's poor condition raised safety concerns.

At the time, Tree Warden Dan Tobin denied the request after consulting with an arborist who suggested the safety risk could be alleviated by trimming the canopy so that it was better balanced. Tobin made the decision based on his understanding that the tree was located within the town-owned layout of Main Street, and therefore under his jurisdiction as tree warden.

That is not the case, it turns out.

Research showed that the tree is located on private property, where Tobin has no authority. The tree was removed last Tuesday.

“It was a hazard,” said property owner Hugh Jones. The tree had rotted, he said, leaving it vulnerable to heavy winds. Given the heavy pedestrian traffic that passes under its branches, “it didn't belong on Main Street,” he said.

“It was a little bit sad,” but the tree had reached its lifespan, he said. It is thought to be more than 100 years old; it appears in post cards of the area from the turn of the last century.

Tobin agreed the tree was in poor condition. Over the years it had been severely pruned around overhead utility wires.

“It was in a declining state,” he said.

While it opens up the front of the historic building housing the Lilly Pulitzer shop, the loss creates a gap in the downtown tree canopy that is very noticeable.

“When a big tree goes down, you certainly notice them,” Tobin said. The loss of a large tree in front of the First United Methodist Church during the 2019 tornado created a similar void. “You pick up on it right away when you come into the area.”

The silver maple is number six on the Chatham Friends of Trees Walking Tour of Notable Trees in downtown and the Old Village. President DeeDee Holt said the last time she measured it, the tree had a girth of 72 inches. She said she was saddened by the loss, but agreed the tree was not healthy.

“I understand for safety reasons it needed to be taken down,” she said, but because it was on private property, there is no requirement that the tree be replaced to try to maintain the downtown tree canopy. Friends of Trees is researching tree ordinances in other communities, working with the Chatham Climate Action Network, which could require that private owners obtain a permit to remove a tree over a certain size. If the removal is allowed, an owner could be required to replace the tree on the property or elsewhere.

Some towns incorporate tree ordinances into zoning or conservation bylaws, she said. “But the better thing is to pull all those things into one document,” she said, adding that she hopes the community will support such a measure. “People really care about trees,” she said.

It's important to maintain the appearance of the front of the complex, which includes six or seven shops and an outdoor restaurant in the back courtyard, said Jones, who has owned the property with his wife Fleur since 1985. At least one of the tenants was concerned that the tree blocked the view of their shop from the street.

“We'll certainly replace it with something attractive,” he said. “At least we have no more worries about hurting anyone. And there is a lot more sunshine on the lawn.”