Tree Patrol

Durell Godfrey

    East Hamptoners like to regale outsiders with how the village was once voted the most beautiful in the country, the consequence of its perfect storm of historic edifices, picturesque pond, and canopy of stately trees — most notably American elms.

    These elms, many of which have died out since the ’70s with the invasion of Dutch elm disease caused by a fungus spread by the elm bark beetle, are the pride and joy of the Ladies Village Improvement Society, whose job it is to oversee the village’s trees. Though measures have been taken to plant more elms and save the old ones, they, along with the village’s other trees, face a new threat: construction vehicles.

    On Saturday, Olivia Brooks, head of the L.V.I.S. tree committee, gave a tour of village trees in order to alert readers to the jeopardy the trees are encountering. “Our trees are being destroyed,” she said, pointing out sites on Lee Avenue, some with more than a dozen heavy-duty vehicles parked on both private property and the “tree lawn,” the strip of village-owned turf that borders property lines and streets, and houses so-called “street trees.”
“Nobody thinks this is doing damage, but . . . what it’s doing to the root ball . . . the weight of the trucks compact the soil so hard that there is little air space . . . and [the tree] has trouble breathing. . . . The heart of the tree is the roots.”

    As she drove along Lee Avenue, she pointed out maples on the left, lindens on the right. “I’m a total tree nerd now,” she said. “If someone opened my brain they would find branches, leaves, roots.” She gestured to a stand of London planes whose knobby trunks looked as if they belonged in a horror flick. “One of our members calls them ‘the arthritic ladies.’ They’re very hardy and old, true survivors.”

    But they will not survive long, according to Michael Gaines, a board-certified arborist with CW Arborists in East Hampton, who, having noticed the destruction of trees for several years, led an informative walk for L.V.I.S. members a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Gaines, whose company’s job is to inventory, inspect, and diagnose trees, is alarmed about “construction damage” that “has a huge impact on the health and longevity of our street trees . . . even if the construction is on private property . . . one trespass on the root zone can have a permanent effect.”

    The most effective solution, he said, is to engender a “respect for the trees. . . . It needs to start from the beginning of the construction process” and be embraced by “architects, builders, contractors, utilities, right down to workers.” He singled out “irrigation guys,” who, he said, “like to cut off roots with their pipe-pullers.”

    Meanwhile, Ms. Brooks slowed down at a construction site where a house was nearly finished on the corner of Lee and Cottage Avenues. There was a tall tree that was grand, but leafless. “It’s dead,” she bemoaned. “They’ll have to take that down.” She turned onto Cottage where, till a week ago, a plaque marked a young London plane, “a memorial tree.” It was overturned by “trucks and machinery and has to be replaced” by the society.

    This sort of incident hits the organization hard. “We’re a nonprofit, and we can’t always afford [to pay] when a homeowner is negligent.”

    Back on Lee Avenue, Ms. Brooks pointed out a “commendable example” of a homeowner showing concern for street trees. On the tree lawn in front of a construction site harboring several vehicles, a snow fence zigzagged protectively around a stand of trees. “When I find out who did this I’m going to thank them,” she said.

    There are more than 3,500 street trees in the village. This year the society’s project is to prune all 120 American elms. “Those are our babies,” she said, lamenting that there are many communities that have none left. Last year the village lost three elms, one in the front yard of the L.V.I.S. headquarters, another on Pantigo Road, and the last near Accabonac Road.

    The drive continued as Ms. Brooks pointed out “the most beautiful elms” in town, one a glorious vase-shaped specimen to the left of Guild Hall’s walkway and opposite The Star’s offices, four more in front of the former estate of Robert D.L. Gardiner. At the corner of Main Street and Woods Lane, where the white-shuttered house stands, she pointed out a pair of magnificent copper beeches that “we’re in the process of losing.” Farther down Woods Lane she remarked that during the High Holy Days “cars are all parked along” the stretch near the Jewish Center of the Hamptons.

    Besides pruning, the society purchases, plants, and maintains trees for the first three years. “We watch them like hawks” to ensure they’re thriving, putting water bags on them till they establish themselves. “The first year they sleep, the second they creep, by the third year they leap,” she said proudly.

    This year so far the society has planted 28 trees. “They’re pricey,” she said. Though, as a nonprofit, they get a break, with elms costing about $3,000 each.

    In her five years on the committee, Ms. Brooks has become so tree happy that she asked her husband to buy her a plaque for a tree on Main Street for her 60th birthday. For $750 she has essentially adopted the tree, which the society will now care for in perpetuity in her father’s name. The tree grows in front of Obligato, near where her father kept his watchmaking shop.

    There’s more damage to be found in the business district, including an ailing tree in front of the Elie Tahari store and another in front of J. Crew. The trees are surrounded by enclosures, the soil blanketed by mulch, but pedestrian traffic is endangering them.

    “Trees are very resilient, but they can’t withstand what people put in these things . . . they’re like giant ashtrays . . . it’s disgusting.” Last week she watched in horror as a mother let her toddler pee in one.

    As for Mr. Gaines: “[Builders] are making a lot of money. I think they can do a better job of protecting our trees.”