Elm trees to be planted around Aroostook courthouse after Houlton man’s 3-year crusade

10 months ago

HOULTON, Maine — After a nearly three-year saga of the courthouse trees, a retired Houlton attorney won his bid to restore the exterior of the Aroostook County Superior Courthouse to what he calls its historic majesty with elm trees.

In a complete turn around, the Aroostook County Commissioners approved Dick Rhoda’s offer to purchase 10 Princeton elm trees instead of the County purchasing red and sugar maples recommended by staff. 

Elms are an American native tree and in the 1890s Houlton lined the streets with them to improve the aesthetic value of the downtown, Rhoda said. With such an iconic courthouse, he wanted to see the elms restored after the originals were lost to disease.

Additionally, on Earth Day this year, the county cut down all the other species of trees in front of the courthouse, creating a barren landscape. 

The commissioners’ 2 to 1 vote approving Rhoda’s offer to purchase and care for new elm trees in front of the courthouse ends a years-long debate over what trees, if any, should replace the ones that had died of disease and been removed. Commissioners wanted to replace the elms with less disease-prone trees, like maples, but Rhoda wouldn’t relent on his quest to restore elms to the courthouse. On Wednesday, he finally wore commissioners down.

“We are preserving history,” he said, following Wednesday’s vote. “I am pleased. It gives me a chance to do something for the town.” 

Commissioner Paul Underwood dissented, citing the elm’s proclivity to disease. Underwood said he accepted county expert recommendations to plant two species of maples instead. 

Commissioners were slated to vote Wednesday on the planting of two native sugar maples and three red maples on the recommendation of Bryan Jandreau, director of facilities and IT. Jandreau had consulted with Angie Wotton, district manager of the Southern Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District.

For the past several years, Wotton has been involved with the trees of Houlton and recently surveyed them under a Project Canopy Grant to better understand what the town needs for future plantings. 

For example, 26 percent of the sugar maples in town are at least 120 years old, Wotton said during a Houlton Town Council meeting in the spring. 

When Jandreau recommended planting maple trees instead of elms, he said that the town had elms twice before and they had died.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Wotton said she sent Jandreau a list of trees, adding that elms are beautiful but Dutch elm disease remains a problem even with resistant species, like the Princeton elms Rhoda is donating to the county. 

Wotton said that sometimes you can’t go backward, but need to progress into the future with new knowledge and understanding of current conditions.

“I disagree with you young lady,” Commissioner William Dobbins said. “You do have to back up sometimes and what was done in years past worked and look at the history of the town. Houlton was noted for elm trees and just because we are going back, it doesn’t mean we are going to the 1920s.”

For most of Wednesday’s discussion, it appeared Rhoda would lose his bid to buy the trees. In addition to Jandreau, county administrator Ryan Pelletier and Commissioners Norman Fournier and Underwood favored planting the recommended maples, citing previous failures with elms. 

But Dobbins was adamant about the commissioners approving Rhoda’s offer. 

After nearly an hour’s discussion about the trees, Rhoda said he would also pay $200 for annual maintenance and if one died he would pay to have it removed.

At that point, Fournier said he was considering opposing the motion but would vote in favor because Dobbins was from Houlton and under the conditions that the county, not Rhoda, decide where the trees are planted and that Rhoda donate funds for maintenance.

Rhoda will pay the town for the trees and the town will purchase them, Rhoda said, adding that he will also provide the maintenance funds for five years or until he dies.

A spring planting is planned.