May 28, 2018
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Controversy erupts over plan to cut down Orono’s ‘giant cottonwood’

By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Despite a Facebook movement to save it, the big old cottonwood tree that stands near the intersection of Main Street and Bennoch Road is scheduled to be cut down.

The removal of the tree is slated to take place on Tuesday, Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson said Monday evening. It is being taken down in anticipation of the redevelopment of the Katahdin Building site, a highly visible downtown location that has been vacant since 2009, when the 1820s building that once stood there was gutted in a fire.

The town and University Credit Union on Monday began the groundwork on a UCU headquarters building — a 16,000-square-foot Greek Revival-style structure that will consist of two wings and include drive-through lanes, a parking area and an urban plaza.

Created on Sept. 8, the Facebook page titled “Save Orono’s Giant Cottonwood” had accumulated more than 180 “likes” as of Monday night.

“The largest tree in Orono will be cut down the week of Sept 16. Orono needs to properly care for its tree resources before it is too late,” the About section of the page states.

Word that the tree is coming down also prompted phone calls to local officials, she acknowledged.

“We’ve received some but most of the folks we talked with once we shared the [project] timeline and about the effort that was made during the design phase, most folks understand why the decision was made and also understand that there were opportunities for public [feedback]. This conversation has been had in public.

“So once they understood that, most people that I have talked with switched from anger that the tree is being taken down to sadness that the tree will be taken down but understanding why the decision was made,” she said.

Orono resident Robert Klose, who teaches biology at the University of Maine at Augusta and is an author, is among those who posted on the cottonwood tree Facebook page.

“The intensity of the chatter [about the tree] runs the vast spectrum from those who just quietly disapprove to those who are on the warpath,” Klose said Monday night when asked what supporters of the tree were saying about its imminent demise.

“But generally speaking, I think there is a sense, even among those who want to keep this tree, that we may have struck too late,” he said. “There’s underlying resignation to it and so you’re not going to see anyone tying themselves to the tree or anything like that or climbing the tree as bulldozers move in.

“I just think the question that people are asking is why and why couldn’t they figure out some way to include this and plan for this building site?” he said.

“I haven’t met anyone who disapproves of the [redevelopment] project … I think people are looking forward to having something new to draw to the center of town again and create some foot traffic in town again, so that’s not the issue.

“I think there’s a sense that if the tree had been made a specific issue at one of the town council meetings, people would have wanted to discuss it. I think that people understand that the tree was discussed at some point but it wasn’t highlighted,” Klose said.

“I’m certainly sad to see it go. I think if some emphasis had been placed on saving it … if the tree was seriously sick, the citizenry needed to be told early on and that may have promoted some early understanding, whereas I think a lot of people think this is coming at them out of nowhere,” he said.

Before the decision to cut the tree down was made, the issue was brought before the town’s Tree Board, as required by town ordinance.

“We couldn’t even publish a schematic design to council that involved taking the tree down without the tree board’s approval,” Wilson said. In coming up with its position, the board answered the following questions:

• Is the cottonwood a rare or endangered species? Wilson said that the board determined that this is not the case.

• Is it a unique specimen of its species? That also was not the case, she said.

• What condition is the tree in? Not good, according to the tree board. A core sample taken from the cottonwood’s trunk — which is about 60 inches in diameter — showed rot about 6½ inches from its surface. Wilson said board members also noted dead limbs and areas with few leaves.

Wilson also said that the group pegged the tree’s age at about 70 years old. The lifespan of a cottonwood is 70 to 100 years old, she said.

In response to concerns about the tree, she said, town councilors have scheduled an opportunity for the community to provide feedback about the town’s balance between aesthetic, development and fiscal priorities.

The session will take place at 6 p.m. Monday in the council chambers.

“The Council looks forward to participating in this future visioning; however, staff has been directed to continue moving this approved construction project forward and meeting the Town’s contractual obligations,” Wilson wrote in a memo about the session.

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