By Jonathan Phelps
---- — WENHAM — After years of planning to build a war memorial downtown, town officials are ready to break ground. But now the debate has shifted to 12 pine trees slated to be cut down.
Removal of the trees at the corner of Main and Arbor streets is recommended by the memorial planners and by a previous downtown master plan. A local tree company has even volunteered to chop them down during the off-season.
Peter Hersee, co-chairman of the War Memorial Committee, said that while the trees provide a windbreak, they are not much to look at. And pine trees, in general, are brittle and break often, he said.
“They really should be taken down so we can have an open area to add deciduous or conifers at a later date,” he said. “We feel it is time to get the trees out the way and go on with our duty to erect that monument.”
Removal of the trees is not needed for construction to start, he said, but it would cost more to remove them after the memorial is in place, because it would be more difficult to cut the trees around the monument. He said a detailed landscape plan will be prepared to fit in with the design of the monument.
“We have to get the monument done first,” he said. “That is the priority.”
During a recent public hearing, Al Dodge, the former tree warden, said the trees were planted as a snow barrier and were never intended to grow so tall.
“I think in no time at all ... they will be too tall for any situation there,” he said.
He recommended that the trees be removed. But not everyone agreed.
Tom Starr of Pleasant Street spoke against the proposal at the hearing, which has been rebroadcast online by public access television.
“They play a part in the landscape of the village,” he said. “I do think the appearance of downtown would change quite dramatically. I mean, literally, the skyline will change if those trees come down.”
Judy LeBlanc, an abutter, expressed concerns that the land will remain vacant for an extended period of time before new trees are planted. She said the town should wait to chop down the trees until a construction contract is signed.
“I certainly would prefer they don’t come down at all,” LeBlanc said, “but I certainly recognize the war memorial is an asset to the town. I think it will look wonderful.”
The push to build a war monument has been a contentious issue after four years of back-and-forth discussions between different town boards and committees over its location and design. Planning for the monument began in 2007.
The committee raised about $190,000 and will raise more for additional landscaping, said Bruce Blanchard, co-chairman of the War Memorial Committee. The total project is expected to cost $197,000.
The monument will be a tribute to Wenham residents who served during World Wars I and II and the Vietnam and Korean wars. It will sit on the car barn lot, a parcel at the corner of Arbor Street and Route 1A across from Town Hall.
The monument will stand nearly 18 feet tall. It will be a light-colored granite column, topped with a granite globe and a bronze eagle. The eagle will be landing on the United States, signifying the return of American servicemen to their homes, Blanchard said.
Eye-level plaques will list the names of every Wenham resident who has served in the military since the Civil War. Below the plaques will be five medallions, each bearing a seal of a branch of the military.
Construction bids are due back March 6.
“If the bids come within our budget, construction can start,” Blanchard said.
He said a master plan for the town’s downtown area recommended the removal of the trees, saying they don’t fit in with the character of the town. “Really, this came out of the master plan,” he said.
The public hearing for the trees has been continued to the next selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, March 4.