Amherst’s iconic Merry Maple tree may get ax 

  • A maple tree illuminates Amherst’s town center Dec. 2, 2016, during the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 01, 2018

AMHERST — A tree that has been the centerpiece of an annual holiday tradition since the mid-1970s is likely to be removed as part of the project to renovate the North Common landscape in front of Town Hall.

The large maple which has lent its name to the Merry Maple celebration, though hasn’t always been the tree lit for the event, is expected to be cut down when the project commences, possibly in May 2019.

At a Select Board meeting on Monday, Oct. 22, Chairman Douglas Slaughter said Tree Warden Alan Snow has informed officials that the maple is showing early signs of deterioration.

“It’s life is nearing its end,” Slaughter said. “In some ways we have been prepared for that.”

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said the overhaul of the common, being handled by Weston & Sampson of Rocky Hill, Connecticut, is aimed at a 50- to 100-year horizon, and an aging tree shouldn’t be incorporated into those plans.

“In that case, to consider a tree that’s in decline as something to design around, didn’t seem to go along with that long horizon that we were looking for,” Brestrup said

The Merry Maple ceremony began in 1976, following the end of the Vietnam War, and replaced the lighting of another tree nearby. The current maple was lit for the celebration through 1994, but difficulty in stringing lights on the ever larger and taller tree brought an end to that tradition.

In 2015, though, the original maple tree made its return as the centerpiece of the Merry Maple celebration, which was then marking its 40th year, and the Amherst Business Improvement District invested money into the project to restring lights on the tree.

Board member Alisa Brewer said town officials need to be upfront with the tree’s probable fate so the public understands what will occur.

“It’s not the end of the world, but we need to be clear it’s happening,” Brewer said.

The changes to the Main Street parking lot, which are associated with the North Common project, remain the most contentious aspect of the project. The preferred plan would mean the current 48 spaces near Town Hall would be cut to 32 spaces. Brestrup notes that the Main Street lot would lose five spaces during any overhaul because it needs to be brought into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

David Mazor, owner of one of the South Pleasant Street buildings that overlooks the parking lot, said eliminating parking was never discussed during the initial stages of planning.

“This is the commercial heart of our downtown,” Mazor said, adding that businesses are fighting for their economic health. “Parking is our big problem downtown.”

Chris Freitag, senior warden at Grace Episcopal Church, said any loss of parking will be a hardship for its members, who depend on close parking to attend services and events.

Amherst Cinema General Manager George Myers said the number one complaint for filmgoers is parking.

The town has attempted to add some parking spots recently, with several new spaces created on a portion of Spring Street, about two blocks from Town Hall.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek said the plans, which he describes as “not the Ferrari of plans,” are to celebrate the site, focus on its utility for gathering and to activate the space for seating and include art and interactive elements, while removing invasive and unhealthy trees. But it is also to make sure sufficient parking remains.

“Our focus has been to come up with a compromise plan,” Ziomek said

“This plan is very graceful, it does a very good job of inviting people in at the northwest corner,” Brestrup said.

Town Council will decide whether to move forward with the project, but Select Board members offered some final thoughts.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg observes that the main sidewalk for people coming from the center will run through a renovated portion of the Main Street parking lot.

Board member James Wald said he wants more clarity about how the default plan was reached, and why the bold plan, which eliminated all parking in the Main Street lot, and a status quo plan, which looked similar to what already exists, were unacceptable.

Brestrup said the process revealed a lot of strong views for not losing one parking space, but similarly strong opinions from those who wanted no parking at all on the common. “I believe it’s the best for now,” Brestrup said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.