Andrew Dys

Tree huggers cry Grinch at potential chopping down of York courthouse Christmas tree: Next up is Monday showdown

There will be a meeting in York at city hall Monday night. It will not be about taxes or police protection or school reassignments – issues that usually draw crowds. It will be a meeting about one thing – a tree.

And it is expected to be packed. Tree huggers are riled up. They want a second opinion from a tree surgeon, or maybe even more than one. Because the one tree at issue is probably the most famous, beloved tree in York County.

York County leaders want to cut down the huge deodar cedar tree on the York County Courthouse property between the building and the intersection of Congress and Liberty streets in downtown York. Citing safety, financial, and aesthetic reasons, county leaders are asking city permission to cut the tree down after an arborist looked at the tree and told county officials the tree is in “declining health.”

The board of architectural review in the city of York has on its agenda Monday night whether to accept the county request, decline it, or ask for more information. Yet some want more expert opinions on the health of the tree – before a decision that can’t be undone – is made.

A certified arborist from Clover, Laura Brewer, said that after The Herald’s article July 24 saying that the tree was under consideration to be cut down, that she was asked by a resident about the tree. Brewer looked at the tree and believed it to be actively growing.

“It doesn’t look like it is in decline to me,” Brewer said.

Brewer, a municipal arborist, also said she recommends two or even three arborist opinions before a permanent decision is made to cut down such a historic tree. Brewer said she has reached out to other arborists about the tree, and plans to attend the meeting Monday night.

Jane Spratt, longtime York resident and wife of former Congressman John Spratt, said this week it seems legitimate that officials get at least one more expert opinion on the tree, if not more. Spratt asked a forester to look at the tree and said she was told the tree looks healthy, but there has not been any official second or third professional tree opinion.

“The tree is gorgeous,” Spratt said.

County leaders stated in an application to the city of York to cut down the tree, that the tree “creates safety concerns.” And as the county is spending more than $9.1 million to restore the courthouse, the tree also presents moisture problems from its canopy and prevents a view of the front of the courthouse.

“The tree, as recently described by an arborist, has stopped growing and is in declining health,” the application states. “This declining health will likely result in the tree dying in the near future.”

David Breakfield, York’s planning director, said that the city has not had an arborist look at the tree to give an official opinion. However, Breakfield said, the board of architectural review, at its Monday meeting, has the authority to vote to remove the tree, or not, or defer action until it receives more information.

Ed Wood, the chairman of the board, said that the board does have the authority to ask for more information about the tree before acting. Wood also said that he understands that taxpayers have made a significant investment in the renovation of the courthouse.

York Mayor Edward Lee said that city officials have known about the county wanting to cut the tree down since May, when Lee met with county officials. York city council, at least twice in public sessions since, discussed safety concerns brought to Lee by county leaders about the tree and the city council was in support of having the tree removed if it, as the county has stated, presents a public safety concern, Lee said.

The tree has served as the city and county’s Christmas Tree. Because the tree is in the historic district, York’s board of architectural review has to approve any request to cut the tree down. Wood, the board chair, said that he has had “quite a few” people call, both for and against the tree, since The Herald’s story on the tree July 24.

“It appears that longtime residents are definitely against taking the tree down,” Wood said. “I am sure there are going to be quite a few people there Monday.”

Leehas received calls on both sides of the issue, and knows there is “a lot of emotional attachment” to the tree that is a “significant landmark.”

What is going to happen Monday night remains unclear. As an official city body, the architectural review board’s decision does not require city council approval, said Breakfield the planning director. Yet because the board is an official public body, any decision it makes could be appealed to the circuit courts of York County if someone on either side of the tree debate does not agree with the decision.

And although the tree is not on York City Council’s agenda for Tuesday night – what happens Monday could prompt it to be discussed, said Lee.

Want to go?

The city of York board of architectural review meets at 6 p.m. Monday at city hall, 10 N. Roosevelt St. The meeting is open to the public.