Dispute Over Catalpa Tree Removal Heads To Select Board After Intense Hearing

A 70-year-old catalpa tree on York Street was at the center of an intense public hearing Thursday afternoon that ended with a decision to send the dispute over whether the property owner should be able to cut it down to the Select Board for a final adjudication. 

The hearing before the town’s Tree Advisory Committee featured extensive debate over whether the catalpa should be designated as a so-called “town tree.” If it is, that designation could prevent the tree’s removal even though it’s located on private property.

But there was no agreement on whether the catalpa at 10 York Street should have that designation. 

On one side was Nantucket’s tree warden Dave Champoux and town arborist Dale Gary, who believe the catalpa – by virtue of Gary and previous town arborists pruning the tree over the years – should be considered a town tree and afforded special protection. Abutting property owners on York Street also joined the Zoom meeting to object to the tree’s removal. 

On the other side was the property owner, developer Jeff Kaschuluk, and his attorney Richard Glidden, who said Gary and Champoux had not proven that the tree meets the criteria outlined in the town bylaw to qualify it as a town tree. 

“We’re talking about private property rights,” Glidden said. “My client owns the tree. If the town had followed the bylaw they could have jurisdiction as a town tree, but just because the arborist drives by and decides to trim a tree, there has to be a protocol followed…I don’t doubt the arborist did what he said he did, but the bylaw says if that’s the case you have to have written permission from the owner. Without that, it’s chaos. We’re talking about a million dollar piece of property. This is a huge deal.”

What is a “town tree”? According to the town code, a tree must meet at least one of the following criteria to earn that designation:

  • The tree was purchased, or its planting was paid for, by the Town
  • The tree stands on or has its trunk partially on Town-owned property
  • The tree was donated or otherwise conveyed to the Town
  • The tree has been maintained more than once by use of Town funds, equipment or personnel during the last 20 years, with the visits separated by more than one year

The catalpa tree on York Street wasn’t planted by the town, is located on private property, and was never donated or conveyed to the town. But both Champoux and Gary said that it has been maintained through the town’s tree maintenance program on several occasions, thereby qualifying it as a town tree based on meeting that single criteria for such a designation. Glidden countered that the previous property owner said he was not aware of any tree maintenance conducted by the town, and that the bylaw requires written permission from the owner before such maintenance can be completed.

Town trees are supposed to be adorned with a special medallion (though few are) as the designation provides special protections and requires a public hearing before one can be removed. In the case of the remaining catalpa, Glidden noted there was no medallion present, although Gary said many have fallen off town trees over the years.

If anyone objects to a town tree being cut down during the public hearing process – as several people did yesterday – the Select Board is required to make the final call in the matter. 

The undeveloped lot at 10 York Street – described by an island real estate firm as “one of the last vacant lots in Town” – was purchased by a limited liability company controlled by Kaschuluk in September 2020 for $800,000.

As he submitted plans to the island’s regulatory agencies to build a new dwelling on the property, Kaschuluk said he attempted to get in touch with Gary to ask about the two large catalpa trees at the front of the lot. But Gary was out of the office on leave for an extended period. Glidden told the Tree Advisory Committee Thursday that he checked in with a member of the DPW administration – he couldn’t recall the woman’s name – who told him the catalpas were not designated as town trees. Glidden said he also checked the town’s GIS map of town trees and the two catalpas were not listed. 

And so after obtaining a building permit, Kaschuluk’s team began to cut down one of the catalpas last September, prompting neighbors, along with Champoux and Gary, to object.

The trees are an important part of the neighborhood, and not just aesthetically important,” said York Street resident Jeff Folger. “It was taken down without permission and it was an important tree. I don’t see how anyone can say it wasn’t or say let bygones be bygones. The second tree needs to stay for safety, aesthetics and because of this ‘I’d rather ask forgiveness than permission’ is a bad precedent to be setting.”

Other neighbors, including Sarah Fraunfelder, also objected to the tree’s removal, as did Nantucket Land Council executive director Emily Molden. 

“This has happened time and time again, where you do it and then ask for forgiveness,” said Nantucket Tree Advisory Committee member Ben Champoux (Dave Champoux’s son). “Some of the channels were explored, but some were not. Dale Gary, the town arborist has always maintained this was a town tree. Dave Champoux has always maintained it’s a town tree and the information gathered was incomplete. The information the town has, unfortunately, is incomplete.”

Kaschuluk also joined the meeting and said the development plan for the property would move forward whether the tree remains or not. He criticized the process by which the hearing had happened, and the town tree designation process. 

“No one takes trees more seriously than I do – I respect trees to the nth degree,” Kaschuluk said. “I’ve been bombed with texts about ‘what is this craziness?’ It’s nuts. There’s no consciousness, there’s no rules, no nothing.”

A date for the matter to be heard before the Select Board has not yet been set.

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