Dan Hust | Democrat
THE “NEW” CHRISTMAS tree in the Town of Bethel, seen behind monument, is much smaller than the one that was cut down.
Bethel Cuts Down Tree; Hears From Residents
By Ted Waddell
KAUNEONGA LAKE December 5, 2006 Town of Bethel Board meetings tend to be crowded, but Thursday’s version was packed.
And while comments and agenda items concerned ongoing issues like road conditions, cracks in the town pool and the financial operation of the Bethel Volunteer Ambulance Corps, it was a tree that brought out the standing-room-only crowd.
Not just any tree Kauneonga Lake’s Christmas tree.
For 40 years, it stood in the traffic triangle in the center of town, greeting holiday travelers with a twinkle of lights.
But this year, Supervisor Harold Russell could not find a bucket truck to string ornaments, and the lights left up all year had fallen from the tree and been shredded by a lawnmower.
The pine had also been growing into a utility pole’s guywire and would have to be trimmed, at the least.
So on Russell’s orders, Bethel highway workers cut it down Wednesday morning, two days before the annual tree-lighting ceremony.
Next to the removed stump, they planted a 5-foot-high replacement tree about a tenth of the original’s height but that did not placate those who cherished “the town’s tree.”
“This town needs to respect the board, and this board needs to respect the town,” said Kauneonga Lake resident Margaret Mary King in what was the opening volley of an hour-long discussion.
“We all know what’s going on with the town pool,” she continued. “Why didn’t we know what’s going on with the tree?”
That was the crux of the debate, as some residents felt the lack of communication indicated disrespect or even intentional disregard for their feelings.
“I felt like someone had just punched me in the gut,” remarked Vicky Vassmer-Simpson, a former town supervisor and a member of Kauneonga Lake’s most famous family, the owners of Vassmer’s General Store right across the street from the tree.
Indeed, the triangle itself honors her relatives in words and appearance.
“Other options could have been talked about,” she added. “This tree was not ready to fall down it was no danger to anybody.
“… Where was the respect shown to my mother and family?” she pressed. “It was our tree, not just the board’s.”
It didn’t help, either, that a New York City TV station had broadcast the news the night before.
“Why do we have to be known for cutting down a tree?” asked one woman.
“It wasn’t me who called them,” replied Russell.
The supervisor indicated he took the action without involvement by the board but defended it as a necessary decision.
“I didn’t see how I was going to get lights on the tree by Friday evening,” he explained, adding he was disappointed in last year’s simple decorations.
Russell also said the center of the tree was full of brown needles (though no decay was noted), so flat-topping it to avoid the guywire would have resulted in an ugly tree.
Besides, he said, the community seemed unconcerned about maintaining a healthy, good-looking Christmas tree.
“The tree had grown so tall it was no longer decorated… it was strung from top to bottom,” he remarked. “If we were so proud of it, why didn’t we take care of it?”
That comment resulted in applause from some in the crowd, which seemed evenly split on whether or not the cutting was justified.
“A tree went down and a tree went up,” said one resident. “Move on, folks.”
Another lady asked the crowd to expend the same amount of energy on solving other issues of concern in the town, perhaps more important than a single tree.
“This is not about a tree,” replied a fellow resident. “It is about faulty thinking.”
“This is an injustice to the people of the town,” agreed Denise Frangipane of Bethel First, which she said did not condone the removal of the tree.
Frangipane told the board that laws should be created regarding such activities, no matter the good intentions, and the community should be involved to build and maintain critical public trust.
To that end, a future should be planned for the town’s triangle, she said, with an arborist and other professionals consulted before making changes.
In the meantime, she urged locals to attend the holiday ceremony the very next night.
“We should support the tree-lighting on Friday for the sake of the children,” Frangipane concluded.
It did seem Russell and the board agreed with the idea that planning could avoid these rancorous issues.
“Can we plan now?” asked one woman.
“Most definitely,” Russell replied.