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Cemetery repairs the damage

Some 350 trees are planted at Port Blakely, to make up for an illegal clearcut.

Atop a freshly seeded hillside on Old Mill Road, new lives, belonging to some 350 saplings, push paradoxically through the soil at Port Blakely Cemetery.

Their predecessors were an untold number of mature fir trees, axed last fall as part of an ill-fated plan to expand the space-strapped cemetery.

Neighbors said the clearing was done illegally, a claim with which the city ultimately agreed.

The cemetery organization in January was slapped with a six-year development moratorium on the parcel and required to replace illegally felled trees with new ones, among other remediation.

With the replanting effort coming to a close this week, both cemetery board members and neighbors say they’re ready to move on, despite some lingering disappointment.

“This is what we wanted in to do in the first place,” said board member Norm Davis, looking over the newly planted expanse. “This was our plan.”

Davis said the nonprofit board tried to do the right thing when it began its expansion effort in 2005, by purchasing 2.7 acres of land adjoining the existing three-acre cemetery parcel. The expansion was needed because the historic cemetery – in which some 1,300 people are buried – is nearly out of space.

Board members said it was supposed to be a win-win; the cemetery would grow and scores of diseased trees would be removed.

“When an arborist says any tree within 50 feet is suspect,” Davis said of the root rot that had taken hold in some of the firs on the property, “you take it out. We were told to take it out.”

But whatever the plan, the cemetery ran afoul of the law according to city officials, who ruled the cemetery board violated clearing permits, city code and state law.

According to city officials, the clearing permit was issued with the condition that only trees identified by an arborist as diseased or dying were to be cut down.

Instead, the board cleared all of the trees in the expansion area, including some within a 20-foot buffer area.

Some of that clearing, Davis said, was unavoidable because the large trees were so close to one another that many of the root balls were connected.

Board members maintain that their biggest mistake was not asking for a clearcut permit in the first place.

Davis said they were told by the city that had they done so, the permit would have been granted and the clearing – except that which was done within the buffer – would have been compliant.

“Perhaps some guidance from the city would have solved some of these problems before they happened,” he said.

The conflict began in the summer of 2006, when neighbors took notice of the clearing.

Old Mill Road resident Lisa Macchio said she and a friend jog regularly on a path near the cemetery. Over time, they saw that the trees were thinning.

Curious, Macchio inquired at the city. A closer look at the work worried her.

“When I saw the size of the stumps in what appeared to be a buffer I was horrified,” said Macchio, who serves on the city’s Open Space Commission and once worked in enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency. “It looked like there were some very bad practices happening.”

She enlisted the help of foresters and others to review the project, and together they pushed the city to do something.

The city’s action came in September 2006, when the board was issued a stop work order. Then, in January of this year, came punishment and the required mitigation plan.

The violations constituted “more than a paperwork problem,” according to a January letter to the cemetery board from city Code Enforcement Officer Meghan McKnight.

The letter, which detailed the violations and the required steps for remediation, said the board showed “the apparent desire and intent to remove trees far in excess of what was permitted.”

Macchio said she’s still upset about the loss of many large trees, though she understands the plight of volunteer board members who have minimal resources with which to work.

She said it’s “unfortunate,” but ultimately right, that the cemetery receive a substantial penalty because it shows the city’s willingness to punish violators.

“I’m not against the cemetery expansion,” she said. “What I would like to see are projects that are in compliance with the environmental regulations on the island. What really matters to me is that someone is doing something to fix the problem.”

The nonprofit board chose not to appeal the process with the city Hearing Examiner, in part because it doesn’t have the money for a legal fight.

The six-year moratorium restricts development on the land, but not burial, meaning that the cemetery still can expand now that the remediation effort is nearly complete.

The moratorium will delay the board’s plans to build a columbarium, a building with niches in which urns are stored.

Some 350 trees were planted over Thanksgiving week; 132 of those were planted in the buffer; 90 new trees were required by the city.

McKnight said she will visit the site next week to determine whether the work meets the city’s requirements.

The cemetery then will be responsible for ensuring the trees’ continued health, which will be monitored each year by the city.

The newly planted trees are mostly western red cedars, which aren’t susceptible to the root rot infesting some of the neighboring firs.

Davis expressed thanks from the board to south-end residents Daniel and Morgan Smith for growing and donating the trees to the effort.

In addition to planting new trees, the board re-graded and seeded the land. It will be suitable for burials in about a year, after the grass has settled in.

The extra space will allow the cemetery, established in 1880, to sell about 600 more plots, enough to last another 100 years or so.

Davis was disappointed that Macchio and others who complained about the clearing didn’t take him up on his offer to help with the replanting effort.

Macchio said she’s glad the new trees are planted, but regrets the project wasn’t done right in the first place. She appreciated the offer; part of her wanted to help out, she said, but another part felt doing so wouldn’t send the right message.

“I didn’t do this,” she said. “Why is he asking environmentalists to help repair something he did?”  

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