To chop, or not to chop, that is the question.

At the root of the quandary is a 200-year-old tree on Russell Road in Alexandria. City officials and citizens cannot agree whether it should stand or get the ax.

The debate began Jan. 17 when city arborist John Noelle recommended to City Manager Vola Lawson that the black oak be designated a "specimen tree." An ordinance passed two years ago prohibits designated specimen trees from being removed without the permission of the City Council and the city manager.

But the 55-inch-diameter tree stands in the middle of a vacant lot owned by longtime city resident C.J. Shepherdson, and he wants to cut it down and construct a house there.

The city has agreed to allow the tree to be removed, but only if Shepherdson pays $10,700 to the city for landscaping projects. That is the amount that Noelle has determined the black oak tree is worth.

Shepherdson filed an appeal of the decision with Assistant City Manager Henry Howard. He said the property is his and that he should decide what should be done, not the city, ordinance or no ordinance.

Neighbors, upon learning of the city's proposal to permit Shepherdson to remove the tree, also filed an appeal with Howard, saying the tree should remain standing. Now the matter must be decided by the City Council.

"It is estimated that the tree is over 200 years old . . . . There are 11 designated specimen trees in Alexandria," Noelle said. The black oak is on a wooded lot on Russell Road in a quiet, older neighborhood of single-family homes.

"Most specimen trees are identified by virtue of the fact that the property is going to be developed, or when someone gets a permit to build and they are required by city law to have the property inspected by the city arborist to determine if there are any specimen trees on the lot," Noelle said.

A specimen tree, according to the two-year-old ordinance, is determined by the age, condition, location, size or species. The black oak was determined valuable enough for the legal protection because of its age and because it is a relatively healthy tree.

Meanwhile, John Komoroske, president of the North Ridge Citizens Association, which represents about 3,000 homes in the area, said he is not enjoying going head to head with his longtime neighbor.

"Mr. Shepherdson is a very civic-minded person and he's done a lot of good for the community. He's a good guy and he and his wife are very nice people, but they want to cut down this tree and we {the citizens association} just disagree," Komoroske said.

"I've lived in Alexandria for 40 years and my wife has lived here all her life," Shepherdson said. "This is one of those things that I just said to my lawyer, 'Here, you take care of it.' "

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the matter this week.