Warrenton residents tried to save ancient tree, but couldn’t stop developer’s chain saws

December 5, 2020

Courtesy Brandie Schaeffer

The 200-year-old ginkgo tree near historic Warrenton, Virginia wasn’t listed on any maps, and wasn’t designated a tourist attraction — but for generations it had been part of life on Washington Street, at the corner of Green Street.

“It was one of those trees you could see through all the other trees because it was so large and healthy, and put off a beautiful yellow leaf,” said Brandie Schaeffer, Warrenton’s town manager.

Schaeffer spoke with WTOP Saturday, after the landmark had already been cut down in spite of recent efforts to save it.

Unlike female ginkgo trees, which drop smelly fruit, the Warrenton tree was male: “so there was no odor, just the beauty that comes with the tree.”.

Located just outside the historic downtown, in the county seat of Fauquier County, the ginkgo tree was in full autumn beauty in November, when town officials learned from neighbors the tree was set to be cut down, as part of the development of four new homes.

Neighbors spoke about trying to raise money to buy the land, with hopes of saving the tree.

“We started investigating, and found it actually might be one of the oldest specimens in Virginia of the ginkgo tree,” Schaeffer said.

Neighbors started a Save the Warrenton Ginkgo Tree Facebook group and had been looking for ways to preserve the tree. The group has even posted videos memorializing some of the trees final days standing.

“There were several groups and citizens, as well as the town council, that put significant effort into finding a mutually beneficial outcome,” said Schaeffer.

The land is owned by Atkins Homes, a Warrenton company.

Schaeffer and neighbors spent recent weeks optimistic that a compromise could be reached, but Saturday morning, the roar of the chain saws began.

“Early Saturday morning, calls and texts started coming into me that the tree was being removed,” Schaeffer said. “By the time I got over there, it was a sad scene, with neighbors and kids standing out there — it was too late, by the time we arrived.”

“It was a real chop job, the tree was coming down very fast, with multiple chain saws,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer said the town’s options to save the tree were limited.

“There’s not much we could have done — it’s a tree on private property, and we understand that. What we were doing was in good faith, operating with the developer, to find an outcome that was mutually beneficial to him, as well as to the citizens.”

Dan Atkins, owner of Atkins Homes told WTOP he purchased the property in November 2019, for the by-rights to develop four lots.

“The neighbor asked about purchasing the lot that the tree was on, but never put forth an offer,” Atkins said. “The town never offered a dollar to save the tree.”

“The only town employee that reached out, on Friday, Dec. 4 of this year was [director of community development] Rob Walton, asking if he had permission to talk to my engineer.”

Asked about Atkins’ comments, Schaeffer said Walton was the point of contact for the town, and he spoke with Atkins’ engineer on Friday.

Neighbors were raising money to try to buy the parcel, Schaeffer said.

By late Saturday morning, the tree was was cut into pieces.

Historic trees go a long way toward framing picturesque homes and businesses in Warrenton.

“I think the silver lining is we’ll be putting things in place, so in the future we’re more proactive, rather than reactive,” Schaeffer said.

“The town council was committed to saving this tree, but we might have started too late. They’re committed to putting some processes and regulations in place, so we don’t find ourselves in this position, in the future.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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