December 5, 2016

The Mysterious Death Of A Richland Oak

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At some point today, an artist armed with a chainsaw will hack into the trunk of a dead oak tree in a Pine Barrens park.  In life, the oak tree was witness to more than a century of history in the village of Richland. In death, it will be a monument to that history. At least, that’s the vision of Buena Vista Mayor Chuck Chiarello.

No one knows precisely what killed the oak tree in Richland’s Saw Mill Park. Chiarello says he consulted three tree experts, including academics at Boston University, and there was no conclusive answer.

But state-certified tree expert Mark Demitroff, who lives in the village, has a different view. Demitroff says he warned Buena Vista Township, and the Pinelands Commission, that the tree – which he estimates is about 175 years old – would die, after they put in paving nearby. The paving, he says, led to regular flooding, which killed the tree.

“Oak trees are intolerant of wet feet,” Demitroff said. The tree’s roots were also injured as a result of work the Township did in the park to put in spotlights and new turf that required fertilizing, he added.

This is not the first time the tree expert and the mayor have butted heads. Demitroff, who supported Chiarello’s redevelopment effort in the village when it began a decade ago, has grown increasingly concerned that projects such as a sewer treatment plant will change the character of Richland forever.

Chiarello says that the experts he consulted could not decide on any one cause of the tree’s death. He’s heard rumors around town the tree was poisoned, or it was killed by the park lights shining on it. “People said, ‘Turn it into firewood!’ But we didn’t want to do that.”

“Frankly we decided that the best thing we could do is pay homage to the tree.” Chiarello plans to incorporate the carving into next year’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Buena Vista Township’s founding.

The mayor said that taxpayers will not be paying for the cost of the chainsaw artist or the six new oak trees that will be planted around the dead trunk. Although a Go Fund Me account that he set up to raise funds for the tree memorial brought in just $390 of the $12,000 cost of the project, Chiarello said the rest has come from donations from local businesses and residents. “We sent letters out requesting donations and that’s the kind of response that we get,” he said.

Richland is a small rural corner of Atlantic County, a subsection of Buena Vista Township (popuation 7,500) that is home to Saint Augustine Preparatory School, a general store and not a whole lot else. The last time the village made headlines was when it briefly changed its name to Mojito in return for a $5,000 payout from rum-maker Bacardi.

Chiarello, who has been mayor of Buena Vista Township for 25 years, has also been involved in a lengthy legal dispute with his former employer, the South Jersey Transportation Authority. Earlier this summer an appeals court rejected Chiarello’s claim that he was discriminated against because of his health.

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