Oak Harbor City Council members gave the post office oak tree “a stay of execution,” as Councilman Danny Paggao described it, in a dramatic decision made during the last seconds of a special meeting Thursday night.

In response, a planned memorial service for the tree turned into a celebration around the trunk Friday, with speeches, stories, poems and even music.

“The oak tree has been spared the guillotine,” Melissa Duffy, an Oak Harbor plant steward who organized the event, announced to a cheering crowd of about 20 tree lovers.

The massive Garry oak tree was scheduled to be cut down Sunday and its trunk carved into a piece of public art by a South Whidbey artist. The tree is suffering from a fungal decay in the roots that makes it a potential safety hazard.

The council decided to hold the last-minute, special meeting Thursday after the issue came up at the end of the regular Tuesday night meeting. The extra days gave council and staff the chance to look into the issue one last time.

In addition to suspending chopping, the council members directed staff to look into options for revitalizing the tree and making it safer, but they capped the amount to be spent at $30,000.

Crider takes lead in sparing tree

The move to save the tree, at least temporarily, was spearheaded by Councilwoman Sheilah Crider. She said she spent “untold hours” in the last few weeks researching and talking to tree experts across the nation and even in Europe and Australia to ascertain if anything can be done to save the oak. She concluded that chopping now would be “casting a premature death” on a tree that may have years, or even decades, left.

A handful of residents showed up for the Thursday meeting and a couple of outspoken folks — Marianne Edain of Whidbey Environmental Action Network and Parks Board chairwoman Helen Chatfield-Weeks — wrote letters. All but one speaker was in favor of keeping the tree.

“Please act to save the tree for a few more years. You will always be remembered for your actions,” said Harbor Pride member Terry LeDesky, who said the city-booster group supports trying to save the tree. He added that the chance of the tree falling and hitting anyone are very remote.

On the other side, Councilman Richard Davis argued that he’d rather see the tree turned into an artistic carving than “wait until it crashes and not have anything to show for it.” Councilman Eric Gerber said the city should spent its resources on maintaining the other oak trees in the community.

“We cannot save the tree, I think that’s something we can all agree on,” he said. “We can delay it for five, 10 years, but it comes with a lot of cost.”

Davis and Gerber voted to go ahead with the planned cutting while the other four members — Councilmembers Crider, Paul Brewer, Sue Karahalios and Danny Paggao — voted to suspend chopping. Mayor Patty Cohen was in Washington, D.C.

Tree’s probably 300 years old

Robert Williams of Seattle, the city’s consulting arborist, gave a presentation about the state of the oak and was grilled by council members. He’s been analyzing the state of the tree since 1996. His 2002 report, in which he concludes that the tree poses a significant hazard from an inevitable failure or fall, was the basis of the council’s decision that year to cut the tree.

According to Williams, the 80-foot tree is probably more than 300 years old, which makes it one of the oldest of its kind in the state. He originally estimated the age at half that, but revised the estimate after further study.

Williams said he could not offer any definite answers about the future of the tree. He said there is no treatment for the type of decay, which is basically digesting the wood of the tree from the roots upward. “The tree is losing the battle with decay as time progresses, I think,” he said.

On the other hand, he said healthy trees are sometimes able to deal with such decay by compartmentalization, or building barriers around the decay, and then growing new wood around the affected areas. The problem, he said, is that the post office oak isn’t very healthy because of all the smothering pavement surrounding it and the constant, soil-compacting car traffic.

Yet Williams said improving the tree’s environment could improve its health, which could in turn mean that the tree could heal itself. He pointed out that the tree hasn’t been inspected in two years and the removal of asphalt from around its base could have helped matters.

“The tree is a dynamic organism,” he said. “That assessment could change. ... The assessment may not be valid anymore if the tree increased in health.”

Helping tree could be costly

The best case scenario for improving the tree’s chances, Williams said, would be to remove all the asphalt from around the tree’s drip line, changing the grade to the natural level and amending the soil. That would mean tearing up part of the post office parking lot, City Beach Street and into Barrington Drive, which an engineer estimated could cost as much as $350,000.

Yet Williams said more modest changes could also help extend the life of the tree.

In addition, Williams said that the hazard rating of the tree could be significantly lowered by eliminating “targets” or the amount of car and foot traffic around the oak. That could be done by closing the sidewalk and surrounding parking spots, as well as closing City Beach Street or turning it into a one-way route.

The tree discussion also included a lot of finger pointing. Williams said the decay was likely caused by damage to the roots by heavy machinery, compaction of the soil, change of the grade and asphalt installed all the way up to the trunk, which occurred when the post office was build some 20 years ago.

Duffy said Edain and Steve Erickson of WEAN warned about the problem back then, but were ignored.

Crider and Brewer also said they were frustrated by the city’s lack of effort in saving the tree and blamed the city’s public works department. Crider pointed out that Williams wrote in his 1996 report that asphalt should be removed from around the trunk, but nothing was done until last year.

“Not one penny did we spend in an effort to try to save the tree,” she said in an interview Thursday. “We had documents in ‘96 that we had a problem. ... Those people who truly did nothing to save the tree want to get rid of the evidence so no one will remember the travesty in the future.”

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