Sometimes a tree is just a tree. And sometimes a tree is big enough and old enough to spark a standoff between the Embassy of Latvia and a group of concerned and daring neighbors, preservationists and city officials.
The tree in question is a 70-foot-tall, 100-year-old ginkgo that Alan Jacobs, a real estate developer, has admired for 17 years on his walks around Sheridan Circle in Northwest.
He says it's one special tree. The tree, which shades the street in front of the Latvian Embassy, has a circumference of 138 inches. The Urban Forest Preservation Act defines a tree with a circumference larger than 55 inches as a "special tree," which means a permit is needed to cut it down.
Which brings us back to Jacobs.
"I have walked this circle almost every day, and I've really grown to love and appreciate the trees all around the circle, especially this one," Jacobs said as he stood under the ginkgo. "When I got the news that the Latvians were going to put an electrical line near the tree, it immediately brought me into action to find any other remedy but to take the tree down."
As it turns out, efforts by Jacobs and his neighbors to save the tree got off to a late start.
The embassy received a special tree removal permit in May from the Urban Forestry Administration, a division of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Scott Stinson, an embassy contractor, gave a copy of the application to Richard Turner, who lives next door to the embassy. "They told me that they were going to take it down. We didn't want them to take it down," Turner said. "It's not anything that they presented us as having a choice in. I was told [by the Urban Forestry Administration] that the application would be granted."
A few days later, Turner ran into Donna Hays, vice president of the Sheridan-Kalorama Historical Association, and told her that the tree was coming down. Hays's response? Not without a fight. Phone calls were placed; meetings were held. Three days later, Hays and about eight of her neighbors met with an embassy representative right under the gingko.
"During the meeting, we proposed planting a new gingko tree, and we were not listened to," said Juris Pekalis, the embassy's first secretary. "They didn't want to listen or compromise. They said they wanted the tree to stay."
An arborist hired by the embassy said the tree had extensive root and trunk damage. Embassy officials have maintained that the tree should be cut down because the damage to the roots will be extensive after electrical lines are installed near it. "All we were asking for was a week to 10 days to check on the health of the tree," Hays said. "We wanted to give the tree a fair chance."
On Friday, an arborist hired by the neighborhood offered a second opinion. The arborist, Steve Castrogiovanni, walked around the tree, thumping along the trunk with a black rubber mallet. He liked what he heard.
"Sounds good to me," Castrogiovanni said. "Sounds pretty solid."
Castrogiovanni said the tree could live 50 to 60 more years with proper care.
"We are sort of at a standoff," said Michele Molotsky, who works for D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "Anyone who sees the tree understands why we want to keep it."
But the gingko really isn't the same anymore. As first reported by the Northwest Current, some limbs have been cut even though the city has revoked the permit.On Tuesday morning, Beth Turner, who lives next door to the embassy, saw tree removers pull up to the yard in three trucks. The chain saws came out soon after. Turner phoned Hays and told her to get a camera so they would have pictures of the old tree before it came down.
Shortly afterward, word arrived that the Transportation Department had revoked the permit the night before, saying the city must determine who owns the tree. The agency faxed a copy of the revocation to the embassy.
Bill Rice, spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the case is under review to determine whether the tree is on private or public land.
Turner, Hays and other neighbors had tried to inform the tree removers, but the cutting continued. Six huge branches came down one by one. Then they went for the crown.
"I knew that they wouldn't get to the top of the tree if we stood under it," Turner said. "It was a desperate move." But it worked. They saved the old gingko at least for the time being.
"This is how it looked before," Hays said as she sat on two limbs that the tree lost. "It was something."