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Man mourns maple

Dave Chasmar came down to the Ashland Plaza last Tuesday to say goodbye to an old friend — a 22-year-old red maple that died this summer after new construction that saw, he says, much of its root system cut away.

Chasmar showed old photos of himself, when he was a tree commissioner, planting the 10-foot high sapling, with then-Mayor Cathy Shaw helping, on Arbor Day 1992.

It was a sentimental occasion, as it was the first planting after Ashland had been granted Tree City USA status, Chasmar recalled.

Chasmar and fellow tree-lovers used to sit in the Plaza and watch people enjoy the tree, which grew six feet a year, soon attaining its present height of 50 to 60 feet.

Chasmar drew a chalk ellipse around the dead tree, showing how, during last year’s construction and redo of the entire Plaza, the planter bed for the tree shrank from a radius of 10.5 feet to 7.5 feet on the long axis. The new spot has only four sprinklers, while before construction, he notes, it had at least twice that.

Chasmar, a professional landscaper, maintains that cutting back the root zone and reducing sprinklers spelled the end for the majestic tree. With the loss of other shade trees and the use of dark pavers, the Plaza temperature climbed, he adds, making it tougher for the tree.

Compounding the problem is that people tend to think tree roots extend deep in the ground, making them stable and plugging them into the water table, he said, when 90 percent of the roots of most trees are in the top 18 inches of ground.

“The general knowledge about red maples is they’re going to be shallow rooted,” he says. “There’s a lot of misconception about where roots are ... they over-estimated the tree’s ability to undergo such severe pruning.”

A statement posted Thursday on the city’s website says “we don’t know, and it’s possible we never will” why the tree died. “Excavation work on the Plaza was done under the supervision of a certified arborist,” the statement says, and “all root pruning was done by a certified arborist.”

Chasmar said the team — designer, contractor, engineer, arborist — all “did what they thought was right. They did the right thing at the time. But it’s obvious the construction project did it in.”

What’s important now, Chasmar said, is not to point fingers of blame, but to learn from it. He has notified the national Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska of the mishap, with the idea it will be publicized as a caution to all member cities.

City Parks Superintendent Bruce Dickens, who handles maintenance in parks and the Plaza, said the architects were responsible for the design of the planter box.

“I don’t know why it died,” he said. “It was probably the damage to the tree roots. My best guess is the stress from construction. I wasn’t on site. It’s very unfortunate it died.”

Scott Fleury, city engineering service manager, was responsible for the project oversight and management. The hard winter played a part, as well as the red maple’s big need for water, he notes.

The tree formerly was surrounded by earth and grass, allowing pedestrians to walk and sit on it, so the new design, with benches and seating walls — and lots of bark dust — was designed, says Fleury, to keep people away from the root zone.

A new tree will be planted on the spot this fall. The Tree Commission will research and make recommendations to the city council about what tree will be chosen. The perimeter of the planter bed will remain as is, he says.

The city’s statement about the maple says its replacement “probably needs to be a tree that puts down deeper roots than a red sunset maple — they don’t do well in areas that suffer from soil compaction.”

Selection of a new tree, the statement concludes, “will be vetted through a public process to ensure we plant a tree that will thrive and endure in that space.”

The dying maple bloomed out with leaves this spring, but they now hang brown and dead.

“This tree was something sentimental, a true Arbor Day tree and the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people in this town,” Chasmar said. “It grew happily and merrily through the years. We would sit up in Alex’s (restaurant) and watch people enjoy it. They called it ‘Chaz’s tree’ after me. I called it ‘the conspirator’s tree’ after Pete Seda, who helped a lot with it.”

Seda, a native Iranian and one-time Ashland arborist, was convicted in 2010 of supporting terrorism, a conviction overturned in 2013. The case was reduced to tax fraud.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Dave Chasmar, former chairman of the Ashland Tree Commission, measures the root system of a tree that died during the remodel of Ashland's Plaza. Chasmar planted the maple in 1992. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch