The Clarence Town Board got an education in cottonwood trees Wednesday night from a retired banker who raised a ruckus recently when his nextdoor neighbor -- who also happens to be the town engineer -- tried to use his influence to get it cut down.
Charles A. Gerber and his wife, Rose, said they attended the board meeting to make sure Gerber's scholarly letter on the "eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides, family: Salicaceae" -- spiced with a few choice words about the town's "abuse of power" -- was read aloud in front of an audience.
How did a retired banker become so knowledgeable about cottonwoods?
"My son is a forester in Saratoga Springs," he replied with a smile.
And yes, he said, it's the same son who gave him the tree on Father's Day more than 20 years ago.
Early this month, Gerber got a letter from the town, informing him that the town's Landscape Committee considered the tree shading his front lawn all these years "a nuisance (that) does not enhance the Melinda Drive subdivision" and should be "removed and replaced with a desirable tree.
"The cottonwood tree," the town's letter continued, "aggravates allergies, clogs gutters, filers, plantings/beds/landscaping and in general pollutes the environment."
The letter was signed by Roy McCready, chairman of both the landscape committee and Clarence Planning Board. But officials said the letter was inspired by Gerber's nextdoor neighbor, Town Engineer Stephen A. Cislo.
"I helped develop (the letter)," Cislo explained. "I gave him (McCready) the facts. (Neighbors) are complaining about the tree. They shed. They clog gutters. People have allergies. They grow very fast. The higher they get, the more stuff flies and the more dangerous they get in a windstorm. Why would someone put up a tree that is not nice?" Cislo said.
But the Gerbers replied that if the trees are so objectionable and if so many people are complaining, why didn't the owners of several other cottonwoods in the same neighborhood also receive letters? And why hasn't anyone but Cislo complained to them?
Cislo's problem isn't with cottonwoods in general, it's with the Gerber's tree, and to use his influence as a government official in an attempt to get it cut down is "an abuse of power and influence perpetrated by an individual with an ax to grind with me (no pun intended)," Gerber wrote in his rebuttal letter to the town.
Eileen Boylan said the Gerbers live between her and Cislo on Melinda Drive and that if the Gerbers' cottonwood is 40 feet tall, "mine is 75." But Ms. Boylan, who received no letter of complaint about her tree, also happens to be politically active in Clarence, a member of the town's Municipal Review Committee and an officer in the influential Concerned Citizens of Clarence organization.
"Our cottonwood shades a row of pine trees he has; that's what this is all about," Rose Gerber said Wednesday night.
Clarence Supervisor Paul R. McCarthy and Town Board members disavowed McCready's letter to the Gerbers, telling them the town had no authority to send it and that their cottonwood is safe.
The board also met with Cislo behind closed doors shortly after the incident earlier this month. Asked about any disciplinary action, McCarthy on Wednesday said he still wants to talk with McCready "to get his side of things." Unfortunately, McCready recently was stricken with a heart ailment and McCarthy, who suffered a heart attack himself last year, said he doesn't want to bother the Planning Board chief now.
Gerber said the "facts" Cislo gave McCready about the cottonwood aren't facts at all. "I find it unconscionable that anyone claiming to represent town government would have the unmitigated gall to write such an insulting, insensitive and technically incorrect letter to a longtime, tax-paying resident of the town," he wrote in his letter to the Town Board.
"Genetically hybridized for rapid growth in poor quality soils," the cottonwood's "snow-like particles which fill the skies in early June are not pollens at all."
"In reality," he wrote, "all seed bearing plants release some pollens during the reproduction phase of the maturation process. I'm sure allergists with concur that we cannot blame one species for aggravating allergies . . . most allergies I believe are pollen specific.
"As for polluting the environment, fast-growing trees (like mine) are photosynthesizing at rapid rates, especially in their young maturing years. Photosynthesis is a biological function that combines sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce sugars which are used for biomass growth, and oxygen is released into the environment as a byproduct.
"So it can be demonstrated and scientifically proven," Gerber told the board, "that this tree is actually helping to clean the very air we breath. Anyone claiming that this tree is polluting is simply ignorant, arrogant and trying to make a nonsensical case to further his or her personal agenda."
On his way out of Town Hall, Gerber was asked if he received any satisfaction from hearing his letter read into the record.
"Yes, I think so. At least they're keeping the matter open" until McCready recovers, Gerber said.