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Largest tree in Southold, deemed a safety risk, is cut down

A tree believed to be Southold Town’s largest, a nearly 125-year-old tulip poplar on Wells Avenue, was cut down three weeks ago due to age and disease.

 “The Trees of Southold,” a book written in 2000 by members of the town’s tree committee, identified the tulip poplar as the largest tree in town, with a circumference of 18 feet. 

Due to its age and the ravages of disease, which had hollowed out the top of the trunk and caused it to lose its bark, Bonnie Hoffner of Southold said members of Southold’s First Presbyterian Church consulted an arborist, spoke with town officials and ultimately deemed the tree a danger. 

“On January 17, 2020, this historic tree was cut down,” Ms. Hoffner wrote in an email. “All that remains today is the massive stump.”

“I remember that tree when I was a kid,” said Jim Baker, who chairs the church buildings and grounds committee. He said church members thought long and hard about the future of the tree over the years and took multiple steps to determine the best course of action.

“In the spring, a very large branch came down,” Mr. Baker said. “The branch was the size of most trees and it was a lucky fall because it fell away from the road. There were a lot of major branches on that tree that were hanging over the road. It landed inside our property, but we said to ourselves, ‘You know, if that ever happened where it fell on the road, it would have taken down the electrical wires. If anybody had been driving or walking, you know, heaven forbid.’ ”

An arborist was called in and confirmed their suspicions — leaving the tree there was risky. From the ground, Mr. Baker said, the arborist could see a hollow part at the top where the next branch probably would have fallen. That branch, Mr. Baker said, might have fallen toward the road, which scared members of the congregation.

“That represented a big risk to the public and we just didn’t want to do that,” he said.

They also convened with a town official, who agreed.

“We felt we had to take it down because it was dangerous,” agreed Ms. Hoffner, a congregant of First Presbyterian. 

She has lived in Southold for over 40 years and took her own children to visit the tree many years ago. 

“PSE&G came and took some of the limbs down that were threatening the wires and then we had a tree company come in and take the rest of the tree down,” she said.

The cost of removing the tree was estimated at roughly $11,000, but the final price will be offset slightly because some of the work was done by the utility company. In addition, one local man took some wood for his fireplace, shaving a bit off disposal costs, and Southold Town gave the church credit for disposal of a small container of waste.

The tree moments after being cut down. (Credit: Bonnie Hoffner)

Ms. Hoffner said everyone was saddened the tree had to be removed and she suspects it dates back to the Grigonis family, from whom the church purchased the parcel. 

Ed Dart, owner of Dart’s Tree Farm on Main Bayview Road, served for 12 years as chairman of the town tree committee and compiled the first inventory of Southold trees in 1989. He said he believes the tulip poplar dates back even further, to at least the previous property owners.

“I’m sad about its loss, I can tell you that,” Mr. Dart said. “I drove by the day they were taking it down.” 

Mr. Dart said he knew the tree was diseased and suspects there was no way to save it, but said he wasn’t aware it was so far gone. 

“I didn’t know it was actually dead. I knew it was suffering, but I didn’t know it was dead,” he said. “I just drove by and much to my surprise, I saw that it was only a standing trunk there one day.”

When Mr. Dart was chairman, the tree committee would hold Arbor Day celebrations at the base of the tulip poplar. To perpetuate the species — and because, in his words, “nothing is forever” — committee members distributed hundreds of tulip tree seedlings to local schoolchildren over a few years. Tulip trees grow fairly quickly.

“I have heard feedback from some parents who tell me when their children were little they received that tree and they have that tree,” he said. “While we did lose that big giant one, we probably do have more tulip trees popping up around Southold than we had before.”

About 10 years ago, another significant tree was removed in the vicinity, near the intersection of Wells Avenue and Route 25. It was, as Mr. Dart described it, “another big, probably almost like a state-champion-sized, honey locust tree.” 

“From my point of view, I think a lot of people just don’t pay attention to the wonderful parts of town that are part of our history,” said Ms. Hoffner. “I kind of noticed, with that tulip tree for instance, I don’t think anybody ever paid attention to it. They just drove by it, but now that the stump is there, oh they stop their cars and they look at it.”

She added that a good many other local trees have rotted away or been removed as well, like the large sycamore by Town Creek Park. Still, she reminisced about the memories spent there.

“It [was] a wonderful tree,” said former Southold elementary teacher Peg Murphy, a tree committee member. “I remember when I was teaching fourth grade, taking the class over to see that tree. 

“But all good things come to an end sometime, it seems, doesn’t it?”