Viewpoint: Wesley Heights heritage tree was wrongly removed

The heritage tree at Hawthorne Street and New Mexico Avenue NW, about 121 years old and locally known as Grover, was recently cut down. (photo courtesy of Bernie and Ellen McMahon)

For about 121 years, a tulip poplar stood at the corner of Hawthorne Street and New Mexico Avenue NW. The tree was known as “Grover” (named for President Grover Cleveland, president when Grover was a mere sapling and Wesley Heights a wooded wilderness). Over those years, he remained healthy and grew to a circumference of 126 inches and a height of about 200 feet. He became one of the largest of his species in the city.

On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 22, this stately tree disappeared. The question, why? The story has all the elements of a good mystery: heroes, villains, political intrigue, money and secrets. Read on!

The heroes are the many citizens and groups who worked so tirelessly to uphold Washington’s pride as “The City of Trees.” Their work culminated in the Urban Forestry Preservation Act of 2002 and the subsequent Tree Canopy Protection Amendment, which took effect in 2016. Among the heroes were the members of the D.C. Council who voted unanimously to pass these laws and the Urban Forestry Division in the D.C. Department of Transportation, whose employees inspect and enforce them. These acts define large trees as “special,” which require payment for a removal permit and single out trees larger than 100-inch circumference as “heritage trees” that must be preserved. Among the many species of heritage trees protected by the law, tulip poplars cannot be cut — no permits, no exceptions. To these heroes, Grover was a rare treasure.

Enter the villains. To those who applied for a construction permit to build a new house on the subdivided lot, Grover stood in the way of their venture. A D.C.-licensed tree firm would neither cut it down nor render it a hazard.

Now the political intrigue. Our own Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who voted for the most recent tree protection law, quietly inserted a one-paragraph amendment on page 89 of the 124-page 2018 Budget Support Act that in effect singled out Grover, exempting him from protection. The villains moved quickly and applied for a removal permit. The Transportation Department approved, and Grover was doomed! Four days later the sentence was carried out and his remains found in the gutter. The neighbors mourned.

But herein lies the mystery: Cheh’s amendment states that Grover could be exempted only after Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs approval for the building permit for this new house. However, our representative on Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D confirmed recently that it was still under review. Apparently, the department has issues with this new house and the permit has not yet been approved and may never be.

So Grover’s removal was not permitted by the amendment, the permit notwithstanding. Who is accountable? A fine for this is $37,685. Misrepresentation in filing a permit application is a Class 1 violation of the D.C. code. Did the parties go to all this trouble and not read the law?

The owner now tells neighbors Grover was cut because he was “ailing.” However, a heritage tree must be declared a hazard by a certified member of the International Society of Arboriculture. Grover was not a hazard.

We can’t bring Grover back, but maybe, if we believe trees have a spirit, that spirit will come back to haunt the house that will stand where he lived quietly for well over a century.

Bernie and Ellen McMahon are Wesley Heights residents.