The town of Kennebunk and members of the Parsons Beach Association have agreed that the Norway maple trees that line Parsons Beach Road are diseased and pose a threat to motorists and pedestrians. (Dan King photo)

KENNEBUNK — Following a new assessment, the contested trees at Parsons Beach Road have been ordered to go.

The grand allay of trees leading to Parsons Beach has been a Kennebunk landmark for the more than 100 years. The trees, however, have become diseased and weather worn, with limbs at risk of falling and decay inside.

On April 1, many Norway maples were scheduled to be taken down and replaced with swamp white oak, however, an outcry from the Parsons family, who were informed days before, and a portion of the community led to a delay in the project.

The decision to replace the trees stems from a study done by an arborist in 2010, during which it was found that a significant number of the maples had become diseased and were dying. It was concluded that the trees should be replaced, and in 2012 a number were removed and replaced with swamp white oak.

The road is lined with 62 Norway maple trees that create a canopy over the road, a longtime community favorite and point of pride for the Parsons family. While the Parsons Beach Association privately owns the beach, an organization made up of 60 members of the Parsons family, the road leading to the beach is a right-of-way and is owned and maintained by the town of Kennebunk.

There were multiple meetings of the Kennebunk Tree Committee prior to deciding the fate of the trees, and at the beginning of April – on April 2, 4, 9, and 11 – members of municipal government and the Parsons family met to discuss the fate of the trees. The meetings included a site walk where tree committee members Bob Palmer and Wayne Cutting pointed out the places of death and decay in the trees to those assembled.

After extensive discussion and requests from the Parsons family, another, more recent study, was completed on behalf of the town.

On May 21, Kennebunk Selectmen held a special meeting to discuss a new tree assessment performed by Bartlett Tree Experts. Noah Tucker, an arborist representative for Bartlett, was on hand during the meeting to explain the current situation with the trees and answer any questions from either the board of selectmen or from the general public.

The report conducted by Bartlett was, in total, 396 pages at the completion of the survey, which was then summarized into a more layman-friendly 27-page version. In the report, which was made available to the public on the town website on the day of the meeting, the trees were numbered, diagnosed individually, and then given a potential risk rating of either high, moderate, or low.

When considering the 47 trees that line Parsons Beach Road, the ratings were broken down thus: one high risk, 14 at moderate risk, and the remaining 32 all at low risk.

During his summary, he gave a run down of the trees, and the suggested course of action for each. The survey concluded with the suggestion that 29 of the trees in question be removed immediately, including the one high risk tree, the 14 moderate risk trees, and an additional 14 of the low risk trees that were in the worst shape. It was also recommended that the remaining trees have extensive work, including cabling and trimming, for the time being.

According to Town Manager Mike Pardue, the assessment of the trees cost $10,700, while removal of the trees will cost $2,000 per tree. Although the town received a $8,000 grant from the state of Maine to replace the trees, an additional $5,400 was needed for the already purchased replacement trees. All together, the estimated cost to replace the trees on Parsons Beach Road will cost about $80,000.

While the selectmen spoke of options for the trees and a potential timeline, it was considered that the town would close the road and beach for the foreseeable future until the fall, however, Selectman Shiloh Schulte dissented with the delay.

“All agreed to have this done with the trees, another individual assessment. Everyone involved said it was a good idea,” Schulte said. “To take this assessment and not follow through is foolish at best.” Paul Driscoll of Norman, Hanson, and DeTroy in Portland spoke during the meeting on behalf of his client, Rudy Holtz, a member of the Parsons family, and raised questions regarding the fate of the “low risk” trees, specifically the necessity of removing them before the risk was elevated.

“I can assure you nobody on the staff is psyched to be taking down the trees here. This is not the business that we’re in,” said Selectman L. Blake Baldwin. “We are in the business of protecting the health and welfare of the community and those visiting our community.”

Dan Riley, spouse of Parsons’ descendant, Julia Burns Riley, raised the concern over the type of tree that was chosen to replace the Norway maples, the swamp white oak.

With the environment on Parsons Beach Road, only a certain number of trees could be considered in order to ensure they would thrive. Both road and sea salt are destructive to many types of trees, but the strong disposition of the swamp white oak led the Tree Committee to conclude they would be the best option.

A horse paddock located on the Parsons’ property caused other species of trees to be left out as well, as the toxicity of the leaves can harm the horses.

Replacing the trees with the current species, the Norway maple, was ruled out as they are considered an invasive species and are no longer available for purchase in the state.

The Tree Committee concluded that the swamp white oak is the best option because of its resistance to road and sea salt.

“I live down there, and drive down that road at least twice a day,” Riley said. “The white swamp oaks that were planted a few years ago look terrible.”

Cutting referenced trees the committee had flagged on Fletcher Street, which some members of the audience affirmed had grown to be aesthetically pleasing.

The board of selectmen voted to continue with the removal of the high and moderate risk trees at the convenience of the public works department. Pardue agreed to consult with town staff and return to a meeting of the selectmen in the near future with a plan for the rest of the trees, including the potential need for a budget expansion in the fall.

“There is no question that there will be a short-term loss,” said Baldwin during the May 21 meeting. “But great communities are willing to make a short term sacrifice for a long term gain.”

Contact Staff Writer Abigail Worthing at [email protected].

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