Sometimes what looks like any other tree — isn’t.
In the case of the Allen-O’Neill Moderate Income Family Homes redevelopment, which broke ground in March, trees coming down are a necessary part of the plan.
But one tree that had meaningful significance to the town’s history and to its veterans came down with the rest, despite receiving what some members of the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission say were assurances from the Darien Housing Authority it would be saved.
The “Gettysburg Oak,” located behind the historic stone that marked where the old Fitch Home for Veterans once stood, was grown from an acorn gathered at the site of the battlefield at Gettysburg. The home was the first veterans home of its kind, and housed many Civil War veterans.
It was grown and transplanted to the Allen-O’Neill site on May 30, 1992, at an official dedication ceremony, that included then First Selectman Hank Sanders, who died a few years ago. Then-U.S. Rep Chris Shays, a Darien native, obtained the tree for the Darien site. Many of the Darienites at the ceremony have died in the past 20 years.
Members of the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission are angered and want to know why it was not saved, as they say they were assured it would be.
According to Planning & Zoning Department Director Jeremy Ginsberg, the trees that were removed were all in accordance with the plan filed with P&Z.
He said there was nothing in the plan that referenced a Gettysburg tree or preserving it.
Darien Housing Authority Commissioner Cyndy Ashburne agreed.
“We believe the contractor has only removed trees that were identified on the site plan as filed with the planNning department,” she said in a statement to The Darien Times.
“We are not aware, nor do we believe, that any tree that was not identified for removal has been disturbed. That being said, we will further investigate and I will get back to you if I get any additional information,” she said.
Karen Polett and her husband David, both members of the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission, happened to be driving past the site when they realized the tree was taken down.
When they asked the worker on the site, he pointed to a small cedar tree as the one to be preserved.
“I said, ‘This isn’t a 20-year-old oak.’ He was all apologetic. It wasn’t his fault,” David Polett said.
Karen Polett contacted First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who she said was surprised it was cut down.
“I’m saddened that a seeming lack of communication regarding the moving and saving of a memorial tree that was significant to Darien wasn’t given more consideration,” Stevenson said.
“It was a situation that was easily avoided and could have, and should have, been accommodated,” she said.
Polett said the tree had been cared for years, and was kept in the late Bob Fatherly’s backyard over the 1992 winter during the growth process.
The tree that was mistakenly preserved was obviously not the oak, David Polett said. “It was an 18-inch scruffy cedar that is about two years old,” he said
“All that had to be done was to have one of us on site for five minutes to tell them where the tree is,” he said.
Karen Polett said Monuments & Ceremonies has been appealing to every town administration since the project was first initiated to save the tree, and its legacy.
According to minutes from a February 2011 meeting of the Monuments & Ceremonies Commission, Karen Polett mentions that she talked to Jenny Schwartz, then chairman of the Darien Housing Authority, about preserving the Fitch Monuments and transplanting the oak.
“Jenny assured Karen that both the tree and the several monuments would be preserved and moved to a central place in the housing plan,” the minutes read.
Schwartz told The Darien Times Wednesday she did not recall that conversation, and said she could not have assured anyone about the status of preserving trees given the nature of the project and the need to take many trees down.
She also said she thought there had been a historical Gettysburg tree but thought it had died long ago. She said she wasn’t sure which specific tree Monuments & Ceremonies was talking about.
There was a Gettysburg oak that predated the most recent one. That one had to be removed because of disease some time in the 1980s. The one planed on Memorial Day in 1992 replaced it.
In minutes from Monuments & Ceremonies’ March meeting of this year, it is noted that “We have been assured by the Darien Housing Authority that both the Fitch Home plaque and the memorial tree from Gettysburg will be safe during the construction at the Allen-O’Neill site.”
The redevelopment, which would double the developments’ homes in density and received approval for $2.47 million of 9% low income tax credits from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority in late August, kicked off in March.
The plan will double the current 53 single-family home units to 106 units.
Ashburne told The Darien Times she has never spoken to anyone at Monuments & Ceremonies about the Gettysburg Oak.
Polett, who said these discussions have occurred at various Monuments & Ceremonies meetings over the last few years, said she is saddened that the tree, and its legacy that meant so much to Darienites now, and then, is gone.
This is not the first mistake made during the Allen-O’Neill project. Before work began a notice for demolition included the address of Ring’s End Inc, which is down the street and not part of the project. It, Housing Authority officials said, was a simple mistake and obviously was not in jeopardy of being demolished.