Fatality adds emotion to debate over Great Falls trees

Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST - Great Falls resident Ralph A. Lazaro stands at the corner of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road. Lazaro is leaning on one of two White Oak trees that he feels should be taken down.

If only Ralph Lazaro had made the call, he says, his neighbor might still be alive.

The massive and once iconic oak that stood in the heart of Great Falls was as bald as a middle-aged man, and Lazaro had been meaning to report it. He even had a photo of it tucked in his briefcase as a reminder.

But Lazaro got busy and put off the call. And then the unthinkable happened.

The century-old tree, which had grown 100 feet tall and weighed an estimated 40 tons, suddenly teetered and fell two weeks ago, crushing Albert Carl Roeth III’s Mercedes CL600 andclaiming his life. The tragedy was all the more improbable because it occurred in clear, calm weather, just weeks after the violent derecho.

On a recent afternoon, Lazaro, a dentist and the head of the local business association, pulled out the tree photo. He said he was ashamed of his silence but would not be quiet again. Lazaro is on a mission to change Great Falls’ policy and its attitudes toward trees.

He wants authorities to take down two mighty white oaks less than 300 feet from the scene of Roeth’s death and next to a professional park he owns. The oaks have stood for much of Great Falls’ history and are some of the largest and oldest trees in the center of town.

Lazaro also wants authorities to deal more aggressively with aging trees that pose a potential danger.

Lazaro’s fight has placed him at the center of a rekindled — and often raw — debate that runs as deep as the roots of the oaks and elms in Great Falls and other old-line communities. Tree lovers have ardently fought to protect big trees that create the much-loved leafy atmosphere here and provide environmental benefits.

But some, such as Lazaro, think the push has left common sense behind.

“We as a community, in our zealous love for trees, have blinded ourselves to a tree that could take a life,” Lazaro said. “We need to wake up.”

Some, although not Lazaro, have gone as far as to say Great Falls’ tree lovers have Roeth’s blood on their hands. They say tree supporters have been so vocal they have stifled debate.

As one angry resident wrote in a group e-mail to local officials: “I BLAME THE TREE ACTIVISTS OF GREAT FALLS FOR THIS UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENT.”

Great Falls tree lovers roundly reject that idea, saying they would never defend a tree that poses a danger, including the one that fell on Roeth. But in a county that is losing canopy, they say, Great Falls and other communities can ill afford to chop down trees that clean the air, prevent erosion and help keep cooling costs down by providing shade.

Some worry that Great Falls’ grandest trees — such as the trees near Lazaro’s property — could be casualties of a rush to judgment in the heightened emotions surrounding Roeth’s death.

They also say the tragedy is a wake-up call to better manage Great Falls’ stock of trees.

“In my mind, there are two things we’ve learned from this tragedy,” said Bill Canis, co-chair of the Great Falls Citizens Association (GFCA) environment committee. “We need to focus on the care of trees . . . and redouble our efforts to evaluate them. We should also have an active tree replacement program.”

Great Falls is hardly the only community debating how to approach its trees after recent storms and power outages. But residents say they have a special relationship with their trees. They are literally living links to a rural past that embodies the spirit of the area. The leafy canopies that stretch over twisting country-style lanes have remained largely unchanged for decades in some spots.

And that is what put Roeth, 64, in harm’s way.

The white oak that struck his car fell during evening rush hour on July 17 on a busy section of Georgetown Pike, next to a strip mall and condos. Roeth, who owned a trucking supply company, had just moved to Great Falls and was building his dream home, patterned on a Southern plantation, said Wayne Foley, a friend. Roeth left behind a daughter.

The tree stood on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s right of way, but VDOT officials said they had never received a complaint about it. VDOT officials said maintenance crews check for decaying trees as they make their rounds, but they also rely on the public to report them. A VDOT arborist said the tree had obvious signs of decay.

Authorities also decided another white oak nearby was in poor condition and had it cut down.

Differences over trees have often grown heated and personal in Great Falls, as Lazaro and other residents know well. One resident said a passing driver called her a murderer when she removed 20 pines from her property in the 1990s. She later replaced them with an assortment of trees.

Lazaro said he wants to remove the white oaks in front of his property at the corner of Georgetown Pike and Walker Road because they block the sight lines of drivers and overhang the intersection. One has been struck by lightening twice, he said.

The area is no longer a country road but a bustling thoroughfare, and he believes it is only a matter of time before someone else is hurt there.

Lazaro said VDOT had wanted to take the trees down in the late 1970s, when he was building his professional park, but the community fought to keep them. He said he found a very clear message from tree supporters one day: a large sign hanging from one of the trees that read, “Ralph, you’re killing me.”

The executive board of the GFCA will debate a resolution on the trees near Lazaro’s property at a meeting Tuesday.

Robin Rentsch, a nearly 40-year resident of Great Falls, is leery of any quick moves to take down trees. The self-described “tree person” said safety is paramount, but if arborists conclude the trees near Lazaro’s property and around Great Falls are healthy and engineers say they are not a threat to traffic, she thinks they should stay.

When Rentsch, 74, moved into Great Falls in the early 1970s, there was a country store, working farms and 54 horses on the half-mile stretch between her home on Springvale Road and Georgetown Pike. Now her two horses are the only ones left.

The old Great Falls is slipping away, she said, particularly at the center of town. She said the tree that killed Roeth, the one nearby that was cut down and the two near Lazaro’s property are some of the few vestiges of another era.

“Those trees were old enough they had seen all the history of Great Falls,” Rentsch said. “It was not only a tragedy when Roeth was killed but a personal loss, too. They were living mementos of the early Great Falls.”

 
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