Tuesday morning the Village of Sag Harbor entrusted Ray Smith, a Southampton arborist, to cut down a 100-year-old black oak tree on Jermain Avenue. Despite two weeks of debate between village officials, residents and members of the Sag Harbor Tree Fund, just a handful of people — mostly village officials — looked on as the tree was felled and Smith’s own assertion that the tree was decaying from the inside out were confirmed.
However, it was not Smith’s professional opinion about the tree’s health that first sparked the debate over whether the Jermain black oak should be cut down or not, but rather two car accidents in the last six months involving the tree. In both accidents, the drivers hit the historic tree, which is located in front of Oakland Cemetery, flipping the vehicles onto the other side of the road. Both drivers had to be extricated by rescue personnel and transported to the hospital — one via helicopter — with injuries as a result of the crash.
Following the second accident, which occurred in August, village officials said an accident report signified a “notice of defect” in the eyes of the village’s insurance company. A “notice of defect” must be corrected, according to Sag Harbor Mayor Greg Ferraris, or the village stands to become liable without any insurance coverage. Ferraris said, having witnessed the scene of both accidents, that he viewed the tree as a health and safety risk to residents.
These concerns were only compounded by an initial report released by Smith on September 17.
“It is my opinion this tree is hazardous and should be considered for removal,” said Smith in the letter. “There are significant areas of visible decay for an approximately seven to eight foot length in the main trunk which leads me to conclude there is possibly more decay in the trunk … The tree has retained enough conductive tissue to support a healthy, heavy canopy which further predisposes it to failure.”
However, last week, members of the tree fund, after reaching out to experts in the field, said decay in the black oak could only be determined by completing a coring of the tree with a resistograph.
On Friday, with the consent of Sag Harbor officials, Smith performed the coring to measure the amount of decay in the trunk of the tree. Ferraris said following the coring, Smith said he was amazed one of the accidents had not taken the tree down.
According to a report written on behalf of Smith, by arborist Jackson Dodds, there is a cavity in the main trunk of the tree, approximately 38 inches in diameter running an approximate depth of greater than 10 feet.
A day earlier, on Thursday, September 25, Sag Harbor Village officials were also furnished with a letter from the director of risk management, Robert Bambino, of New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal – the property and casualty insurer for the village.
“Based on a review of a letter issued by Ray Smith of Ray Smith & Associates concerning his evaluation of the health of the tree, and photographs sent to us showing its location on the roadway, we believe the tree should be removed,” said Bambino in the correspondence.
And on Tuesday, with little fanfare, it was.
Following the tree’s removal, Ferraris said other street trees in Sag Harbor were not at risk for removal — even those creeping into the street like the Jermain Avenue black oak. However, one hanging six-to-eight inch diameter branch, at Jermain Avenue and Palmer Terrace will be cut back.
“If we become aware of something else, we will look at it,” said Ferraris, adding that village clerk Sandra Schroeder will be working with the tree fund to come up with a formal policy on how situations like this are handled in the future.
The debate over the tree also led to a discussion about traffic calming on Jermain Avenue, with some residents asking for larger solutions to perceived speeding issues on the road, which has become a thoroughfare from Route 114 to the Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton Turnpike and Noyac Road.
On Tuesday, Ferraris said he had contacted the New York State Department of Transportation, which will provide the village with boxes designed to track the speed of vehicles on a roadway.
“It is the first step in gathering information on how we move forward,” he said. “We will have to see what comes back.”