I never really saw it this way until now, but I think Maui County has it in for monkeypods, the old shady ones on our streets. That's the conclusion I draw from the bizarre case of the threatened one at 545 Front St. in Lahaina.
It's a great tree, 50 years old, healthy, that casts a wide arc of shade, just the thing in steamy old Lahaina.
The monkeypod falls in the historic district and makes a verdant bridge between Kamehameha Iki Park and the start of town. The LahainaTown Action Committee, the Cultural Resources Committee and the Arborist Committee have all indicated a desire for its preservation. Which is why I fail to see why the county appears to be so bent on cutting it down.
We came across the tree one night as we walked back to the car from my birthday dinner at Pacific'O. We'd snared a table on the water and had some laughs at my date's annual ingestion of a chocolate martini and the wit that invariably follows. (Usually I request an impersonation: This year it was a Starbucks customer from hell.)
We were high on the conversation and the complimentary cake until we came across the controversial monkeypod in the middle of the sidewalk, around which orange traffic barriers have been erected in a parking stall to provide a superwide detour.
I got curious. What's the problem?
The tree had lifted the sidewalk and someone complained a wheelchair couldn't pass. "It's a matter of equal access," I was told, a violation of federal standards. It seemed the county didn't want to give up the parking space to make the detour permanent.
I found it hard to believe people in wheelchairs would demand such a sacrifice, so I began to investigate. That's when I discovered the report done gratis for the Arborist Committee by Ernie Rezents, author of the county's tree planting plan - a model for the state - and the most esteemed arborist on Maui.
He pointed out that there are 39.5 inches of space on one side of the Front Street monkeypod, and 39 inches on the other, dimensions similar to those of the new sidewalk in the state's recent highway widening project near Shaw Street.
In that, the state went out of its way to preserve the monkeypod canopy at the entrance to Lahaina - "You've just got to think outside the box," Charlene Shibuya, the project engineer told me - even though it meant narrowing the sidewalk to 38.5 inches. This, she informed me, is compliant with federal law. In fact, for "short runs," such as that around a tree, only 32.5 inches is required.
Eureka! I thought. The tree is saved! All the county would have to do is waive its excessive 5-foot wide sidewalk standard that allows two wheelchairs to pass, not simply one.
But no. It turns out the county arborist has deemed the tree "hazardous" and "unstable," because one surface root was cut a few years ago, according to a neighbor, to make room for wheelchair passage. As any qualified arborist will tell you, cutting one root does not make a monkeypod unstable. They can tolerate up to one-third of their roots being cut and still be safe, if properly done. Many local experts can testify to this.
Still, the county moves ahead with its case against the tree. The point seems to be that even if it is not causing problems now, it will do so in the future. Plans are in place for replacement trees "with canopy and proper root barriers," smaller ones that will take years to provide valuable shade.
On the Mainland, cities that want to preserve their old trees install rubber sidewalks that can be lifted up when root pruning is needed and laid back down again at low cost. In Carmel, Calif., trees encroach on sidewalks and officials deem it charming. In Honolulu, street trees aren't destroyed until every alternative has been exhausted.
Here, not only are we eager to cut them down, monkeypods are no longer being planted in county parking lots and parks. We have a sizable parks budget for cutting down trees and precious little for planting or maintaining them.
Ironically, Maui is envied on other islands for its monkeypod boulevards. A long-term vision for old street trees - particularly in the historic districts - needs to be put into law, making preservation a priority.
Maybe it would help if the County Council got involved.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.