Returning home from the Outer Banks, I discovered that one of the oldest Linden trees in Cape Charles, at 510 Monroe Avenue had been cut down. As far as any of my neighbors knew, the tree had not been marked for removal by either the town or by VDOT (the tree stood in the VDOT right of way). I contacted Town Planner Larry DiRe to find out if he was aware that the tree had been cut down. Larry told me that he was aware, and “That tree was removed without obtaining a VDOT permit. VDOT is aware and stopped the work after of the tree was removed. Marshall Tree Service was the contractor. I know the VDOT resident engineer spoke to them and I also spoke to them. Any further work will require a VDOT land use permit to work in the VDOT right of way.”
According to VDOTs Dale Pusey, the tree crew had been in town that week, but did not mark that tree for any maintenance. As of this time, Marshall’s Tree Service has been told not to touch the stump until a formal VDOT permit has been issued. This begs the question: as professionals, shouldn’t Marshall’s have obtained a permit from either VDOT or the Town before performing the work?
The Cape Charles Mirror contacted Dale Pusey at the Accomack VDOT office, to inquire about whether they would be taking action against the homeowner, the contractor or both. “The tree was in a state of decline and it was in the process of being evaluated by VDOT. The center of its trunk was dead and it was a hazard to the adjacent homeowner and to the traveling public due to its size. There will be no action taken against the homeowner, who removed the tree without any cost to the taxpayers,” Pusey said.
I’m sorry, the cost to taxpayers is not the issue here. So, you really don’t need a permit to chop down a historic tree? Who exactly makes that determination? Did an certified arborist determine that the tree ‘was in decline’? How exactly would VDOT know if it was in decline if they never saw the tree? If it were in decline and posed a threat, why was it not marked for removal? Why was the Town not notified about this action prior to it taking place? Again, who makes the determination, and who has the authority to remedy the situation for the taxpayers?
Trees have always been considered an integral part of the historic fabric of Cape Charles. This notion led the Town to adopt its Master Tree Plan in 2006:
The historic fabric of Cape Charles includes its signature plantings – types of trees notable for size, age and rarity, as well as those traditionally planted by residents for food or shade. Among these signature trees and plantings are Crape Myrtle, Sycamore, Pecan, Sweet Gum, Carolina Cottonwood, Linden, Basswood, Japanese Black Pine, Fig, Camellia, and Nandina.
Signature trees are important community assets. They enhance the beauty of Cape Charles for its residents and guests. They protect property values and help draw tourists. Signature trees should be preserved when possible or replaced when removed…Trees are an invaluable physical and psychological counterpart to the town setting,make town life more comfortable by providing shade and cooling of the air and land,reducing noise levels and glare…The Plan’s purpose is to ensure the beauty and ecological health of Cape Charles for its citizens and guests. The general intent and purpose of this Tree Conservation and Preservation Ordinance is to implement the Cape Charles Tree Master Plan.
While some removal is allowed, “The goal of the Cape Charles Master Tree Plan is to retain a “no net loss” in terms of trees in the streetscapes throughout the Town.”
In order to implement the Master Tree Plan, the town adopted its Tree Conservation and Preservation Ordinance. The ordinance is specific in its directions, mainly that before you touch a tree in the historic district, you must first obtain a permit:
Section 2.2 Removal or treatment of trees on private property.
A tree removal permit shall be required before any tree (or shrub which is in tree form) on property described in Article I, Section 1.2 may be destroyed or removed.
It also states that if you do remove a tree in violation, it should be replaced by a comparable tree:
Section 2.7 Replacement of trees destroyed in violation of chapter.
Town of Cape Charles Zoning Ordinance
When trees are destroyed in violation of this article, replacement trees shall be required unless exemption is granted by the Zoning Administrator. The size, species and quantity
of these replacements shall be determined by the Zoning Administrator based on the value of the trees removed as calculated by the latest formula published by the International Society of Arboriculture.
It also is specific about penalties and remedies for those in violation of the ordinance:
Section 2.9 Violations and penalties; remedies.
Any person, whether as an owner, lessee, principal, agent, employee or otherwise, who violates any of the provisions of this chapter or permits any such violation or fails to comply with any of the requirements, or who erects any building or who uses any building or any land in violation of any detailed statement of plan submitted by him and approved under the provision of this chapter shall be subject to a civil penalty not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500.00) for each violation.
This event exposes a huge problem. Right of way or not, why are people in Accomack telling the Town of Cape Charles what to do with its own trees? Even so, VDOT should have the courtesy to defer to our ordinance. In this case, the streetscape and tree canopy was severely damaged, and VDOT acts as if someone just overly clipped an azalea bush.
This gets back to just who makes the determination to remove a tree in the Historic District. First, it should not be the homeowner, even if pests are present. There are ways to deal with that, and for a significant tree like this, that determination needs to be made by an ISA Certified Arborist. The removal of one of the last and oldest Linden trees at 510 Monroe appears to be a violation of Town Code, and should be dealt with appropriately. The Town should set a precedent here; fines should be levied and a comparable tree should be replaced in that location.