Beloved Hunnewell School White Oak tree gets “high risk” safety grade

Hunnewell Elementary School’s venerable 200+ year-old White Oak tree that stands sentry outside the front entrance of the 28 Cameron Street school in Wellesley Square has been deemed a “high risk tree” in a report commissioned by the Natural Resources Commission. The report is embedded at the bottom of this post.

Update 1/7/20: The School Committee has given the Department of Public Works the go-ahead to cut down the tree.

 

Hunnewell White Oak, summer 2018
Hunnewell White Oak, summer 2018

The dire news has led Principal Ellen Quirk to make the front entrance of the school off limits, which includes the entire courtyard area, so that students, faculty and staff, and visitors will not have to pass near the tree to enter the building. Quirk has alerted families on alternative ways to access the school.

Visitors to the school should enter through the original 1938 entrance. The door will be locked for security reasons, and a monitor will be there to assist visitors.

The over 30-foot tall tree serves many purposes from providing shade to teaching tool to wildlife home. With the report from arborists Carl and Dan Cathcart from Plant Healthcare Consultants, it seems likely that the deciduous landmark may not survive to celebrate its tricentennial. The full report will be available shortly, and we will update this post accordingly.

Hunnewell tree
Hunnewell tree now off-limits

 

Risk/benefit analysis

NRC Director Brandon Schmitt said, “A high-risk tree implies that there are structural or other issues with the tree that make it more likely to fail, either in-part or completely, PLUS a clearly defined target — in this case the school building itself and the students, parents teachers and staff who occupy it. It’s really a measure of the probability of failure combined with the consequences of that failure.”

Schmitt noted that although White Oaks have an average life span of 300 years, their longevity depends on location and care.

For example, out in an open meadow subject to minimal people-pressures, a White Oak can thrive. The White Oak at Hunnewell however, has been subject to many people-pressures such as a limited root growth zone, and soil compaction from foot traffic as well as the 1995 construction of the school wing.

Town Landscape Planner Cricket Vlass said the Cathcarts performed an International Society of Arboriculture Level III Tree Risk Assessment, which includes a visual assessment and measurements from a Resistograph, a high-resolution needle drill resistance measurement device.

“They determine the tree to be at High Risk due to a 3’ vertical trunk crack on the west side, which has formed within the past six months, with several crack beginning to form on the east, slow compartmentalization of old pruning cuts, cavities in the limbs, included bark at branch unions, stress cracks in several major limbs and a lean toward the building without the supporting buttress roots. All of these factors, along with the school as a target, have led the assessors to deem the tree to be High Risk, ” Vlass said.

As part of the School Committee (SC) meeting on Tuesday, January 7, 6:30pm - 9pm in the Juliani Room at Town Hall, the SC will discuss the arborists’ report on the tree and the appropriate next steps.

Although the NRC was involved in commissioning the report, any decision on the tree’s fate will ultimately be up to the SC because the tree is located on school property and is not considered a public shade tree. Neither the NRC, the Park and Tree Division, nor the Planning Board are decision-making agencies regarding the potential removal of trees on school property.

The potential destruction of the Hunnewell White Oak has been a hot-button topic since 2018. At that time during a joint meeting at Town Hall of the School Building Committee and the Board of Selectmen, stakeholders including concerned Hunnewell School neighbors and parents voiced their opposition to a Hunnewell School construction project that would lead to the destruction of the tree.

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