On January 6, a storm brought down a 150 year old English Oak tree in central Rotorua. It crashed onto a nearby office building and on a parked car, killing the sole occupant.
Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said the death was a tragic accident. She said, "This is an absolute tragedy and our hearts and thoughts are with the family at this terrible time".
Indeed it is a tragedy. The issue is whether it could or should have been avoided and whether the actions or inactions of the Mayor, the council's Chief Executive, or its arborist contributed to the tragedy and should be held criminally liable.
According to media reports, the oak tree was regularly checked as part of the council's notable trees inspections programme. In February 2017 a report presented to the council found no major issues with the tree. Annual inspections were recommended. After that report was presented to Council, another tree expert raised concerns about the tree’s safety. As a result, the Council's regular contractor carried out another inspection and in late September/early October bracing on the tree was replaced and some branches were removed. In January the tree collapsed.
My question is, why prop up a tree that is in a high risk location? One does not need to be a tree expert to know that if a tree needs bracing then there are some serous issues going on.
There is no doubt the tree was spectacular; 23 metres high, a crown spread of 33 metres, and a girth (circumference) of 7.1 metres. It was big and towered over the single story office building that partially sat under its drip line.
The tree also has some history - the story being that the tree was planted in 1863 from one of four acorns sent to Rev. Richard Taylor at Wanganui by Queen Victoria in 1861. Seedlings from the other three acorns were successfully planted in Wanganui, Christchurch and Dunedin on 9 August 1863 to commemorate the marriage of Prince Albert Edward and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. In 1984 it was thought to be the largest specimen of its kind in New Zealand, although it now seems there is a larger tree in Motueka.
It was an impressive tree but is any tree worth risking human life or serious property damage? Absolutely not! It is after all, just a tree.
In this unfortunate case, even members of the general public could see the tree was dangerous, not only because of its age and size, but also because of its location.
Here's a simple truth. Big trees in close proximity to people and property are dangerous - end of story. There are countless examples of notable trees collapsing - despite being monitored and managed by experts. It is quite obvious that a "tree management plan" does not eliminate the risk of limbs falling or the total collapse of a tree, and I doubt very much that it even reduces the risk.
There are appropriate places for big trees - those places are called parks and forests! The tree in Arawa Street in Rotorua may have been planted in an appropriate place in 1861, but in 2018 that place happens to be a busy commercial area. It is not an appropriate site for a large oak tree.
What is ironic is how much has been done to make workplaces safer, yet the safety issues of large trees in close proximity to roads or where people live and work has gone unnoticed. It's simply not acceptable. It's about time councillors and senior council management stopped kow-towing to activist tree huggers who are so blinded by their ideals that they have no regard for the risks to people and property. It's a matter of priorities - what matters most - a tree, or human life?
There needs to be some common sense from public servants to put public safety ahead of tree preservation. In my opinion they will only do so if they are personally liable for the consequences of their inaction.
Tree tragedies such as that which has occurred in Rotorua are avoidable and those culpable should be held criminally liable. In this case the tree was "protected" by the council so it was their responsibility to manage the tree in a manner that did not put the public at risk. If they could not guarantee that - the tree should have been removed.
If they fail to do that, then it is the council CEO or its mayor that should be held criminally liable - just as employers and company directors have become criminally liable for workplace safety. Only then will council leaders start taking the risks associated with heritage trees seriously.
Frank Newman is an investment analyst, author and former councillor who writes a weekly article for Property Plus.