Board OKs tree repair despite safety concerns

Respect for history was prioritized over concerns about public safety as the Board of County Commissioners moved forward to preserve the 160-year-old Maltby Oak tree at the Putnam County Courthouse.

There was some skepticism about the decision at the commission workshop Tuesday as General Services Director Julianne Young briefed commissioners about a report submitted by a father-and-son team of arborists who have been following the tree’s progress for almost 15 years.

On April 14, a large branch fell from the tree during a storm, sparking concerns about whether the tree is a safety hazard to people visiting the courthouse. Portions of the tree have been rotting for years, managed by periodic attempts to preserve it.

While the vote to preserve the tree was unanimous, two commissioners openly erred on the side of public safety.

“If someone had been under this tree when the branch gave up the other day, they’d be dead,” Commissioner Terry Turner said. “There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area of the Maltby Oak. I’m in favor of making this thing last as long as it possibly can but not at the risk of killing somebody over it.”

But the report by Chuck and Danny Lippi submitted April 20 argues the tree is “still viable and healthy” and would only require trimming and pruning. It also noted portions of the tree have flourished since rejuvenation work began in 2005.

That year, commissioners voted to remove the tree but later backtracked following public uproar.

“Live oaks have the ability to compartmentalize decay and wall it off from other portions of the tree,” the report said. “Now that the main leader, which has been a structural concern, is gone, the remaining lateral branches of the Maltby Oak are lower and have a decreased likelihood of failure.”

Young said she was unsure about the future safety of the tree, noting the weakness of the storm that felled the branch. And while the tree — named after Hubert Maltby, one of the founders of the Putnam County Fair — has historical significance, some commissioners were ready to decide against preserving it.

Commissioner Larry Harvey, who agreed with Turner, said the county should focus on preserving the tree’s offspring throughout the county, including one at the courthouse.

“Trees die. How much longer can we breathe life into this thing until it’s not here anymore?” Harvey said. “I love trees, but let’s face the fact that’s what’ll eventually happen.”

But Commissioner Buddy Goddard disagreed, alluding to a generational divide in the debate by calling the view to take down the historic tree the “young side of the argument.”

“I think we need to approach this realistically about who can get hurt by it. But we should do everything we can to trim that tree up, make it a viable tree and see if it comes back,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we can address this again.”

The General Services Department was given authorization to find a tree surgeon to perform the necessary work on the Maltby Oak. Trimming the tree, Young said, could cost about $10,000. 

Above and Beyond Tree Service, a Palatka company, was named in the workshop as an option to perform the work, having worked on the tree in the past. Jacobs Tree Service was also mentioned, but Young said the company is leery of performing the work.

“It’s one of those situations where the people taking on that work also know what it means to the community,” she said. “There has to be a balance.”

Palatka Daily News

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