SHIRLEY -- The mission of the recently formed White Pine Working Group was to find ways and means to rescue a venerable tree in the Center Cemetery that was slated for removal.

Despite the group's efforts, however, the selectmen's previous decision to fell the tree still stands and was reinstated Monday night.

Estimated to be between 175 and 200 years old and 80 to 100 feet tall, the white pine's hefty branches and huge twin trunks tower above the Whitney plot, said to be the oldest gravesite in the cemetery.

The tree's roots traverse the ground below like varicose veins. Reaching out rather than down as the tree grew, the roots began to engulf the slate headstones, shoving them askew. According to Chairman Andy Deveau, the roots are "consuming" the irreplaceable slate stones, engulfing them like the tentacles of a giant squid.

The encroaching root system and perhaps downed branches over time may also be blamed for disrupting the granite-moored iron fence around the plot, lengths of which now lie on the ground, Deveau said.

Citing the damage already done and the risk of more in the future if the tree stays put, the selectmen voted unanimously to stand by the decision they made at a public hearing six weeks ago to remove the tree.

The recent vote ended a stay of execution the selectmen agreed to after the hearing, when the original ruling was tabled in light of protests from neighbors and others, some of whom didn't attend the tree hearing. They all felt strongly about the issue and would come together to form the White Pine Working Group, naming Janice Tice as chairman.

Basically, their position was that more scientific information should be obtained before removing a tree that had stood for so long and was as much a part of the cemetery's history as antique headstones and engraved epitaphs.

Deveau, in particular, felt the tree should come down - healthy or not - before it caused any more damage.

But when the working group asked for time to have an arborist take a look at the tree and Paul Przybyla agreed to pay for it, the selectmen agreed.

The arborist, Carl Cathcart, inspected the tree recently. He said tests should be done to determine the interior density of the tree before moving forward with recommended solutions, such as cabling and trimming.

"All we're asking for is more time," in which to have a density test performed on the old tree, said former selectman Chip Guercio, whose family home stands on the historic town common, across from the cemetery. The test would tell if the tree is healthy enough to withstand measures to save and secure it, he said, including trimming the top to reshape it and cabling the two trunks together.

According to Tice, the $5,000 or so that remedial and restorative tree work would cost would come from private donations, not public funds, versus the $3,900 cost to remove it, which the Cemetery Committee has agreed to pay. Enough money has been raised already to pay for the density test and then some, she said.

But the new and different piece of the group's proposal was a commitment to restore the gravesite as well as the tree, Guercio said. He characterized the group as a "committee" of citizens, many of whom have lived a long time in town, with a number of historic experts among them. They wanted "to do something positive for the town," he said.

But Chairman Andy Deveau pointed out that the Pine Tree Working Group is not an appointed committee and that the selectmen's original decision to fell the tree was not based primarily on its health.

The decision to sacrifice the tree was weighed against safety and the risk to rare slate headstones, said Deveau, quoting another expert who visited the site at the selectmen's request. David Gallagher, chief of conservation at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, said those headstones were older than any at Mt. Auburn, which has no slate stones, Deveau said.

All things considered, Deveau said he was not unsympathetic to the working group's cause, but he stood by his earlier decision to have the tree removed. 

Selectmen Kendra Dumont and David Swain backed him up, stating that the historic value of the stones trumped that of the tree, which Swain said simply "grew there" and was not planted as part of the cemetery's landscape layout.

After the meeting, Deveau said the process would not be held off any longer and he planned to call DPW Director Paul Farrar -- maybe even that night -- to get the job done.

New Wrinkle?

After leaving the meeting Monday night, Tice followed up with an e-mail to Chief Administrative Officer David Berry, stating her concern that the wrong Massachusetts General Law may have been cited in the legal notice for the public hearing and asking that the selectmen table their decision to sort the matter out.

In a brief conversation Tuesday morning, Berry said that if legal action ensued, the selectmen would respond accordingly, but the decision stands and there's nothing in the works to change it. "The DPW has been instructed to move forward," with the tree removal, he said.

Administrative Assistant Kathleen Rocco said the public hearing, legal notices and postings - including on the tree - went "above and beyond" the "due diligence" Tice called for in her e-mail. It's not relevant if the tree is a town shade tree or not, Rocco said, since in the latter case the board did more, not less, than it was required to do.

Deveau, for his part, said that even if the shade tree bylaw didn't apply to the tree in question, the hearing process alerted the public and gave everyone a chance to air their views.

It also put a spotlight on other trees in the Center Cemetery that need attention before they, too, become a problem. Deveau said, and he aims to follow up.

For now, though, this particular tree poses a risk to artifacts more valuable than itself and should come down as soon as possible, he said. "We're on borrowed time."