Published in the November 4, 2019 edition.

WAKEFIELD — A man who cut down over a dozen trees on town property near Crystal Lake will pay for doing it.

The Town Council agreed last week that Michael Thater of Sylvan Avenue must cover the cost of replanting 30 trees as a penalty for entering clearly posted town-owned property and chopping down 15 trees in the Crystal Lake watershed. The trees were well-established and healthy, standing 20 feet tall or more, officials said. Thater took a chainsaw to them on the weekend of October 5 and 6.

Town officials called the incident a “serious offense.”

While they penalized Thater, the councilors could have gone a lot farther. As Town Counsel Thomas A. Mullen  wrote in a letter to Thater, under state law “the Town is entitled to recover from you…’three times the amount of the damages assessed therefor.’ I am informed that the replacement cost of a single, mature tree ranges from $300 to $3,000 depending on its type and size, suggesting that the total damages, after trebling, would be between $13,500 and $135,000. In addition to seeking to be made whole through a civil action, the Town may demand prosecution under (two sections of state law). Conviction under either statute would result in a fine of up to $500 or imprisonment for up to six months, and would leave you with a criminal record.”

For his part, Thater was extremely apologetic both in print and at the Town Council’s meeting last Monday. A couple of neighbors spoke in his defense as well.

Thater wrote to councilors, “This was a grave mistake that I wish I could take back as I was unaware at the time of the ramifications of my actions.

“I would like to explain my thinking at the time…. This is in no way an attempt to excuse my actions, but rather to shed light on why I did what I did and hopefully show I did not intend to hurt the watershed area as I am a firm believer in preserving our natural resources. The trees I cut down were Norway maples which are invasive species and on the Massachusetts prohibited plants list. I had noticed that areas of the park with healthier native pine trees did not have the intrusive Norway maples near them. The pine trees in front of my house have many branches that look dead and have no pine needles, and I thought the suffocating nature of the Norway maples was hurting the native pines. It was my belief that removing some of the invasive trees would let the native pine trees flourish again.”

Thater offered to remove and properly dispose of all the logs and limbs that fell by his actions at his own cost, and to join the new Clean Lake Committee “to hopefully show the town my passion for our natural resources. I think this would show my appreciation for our natural resources and give me the opportunity to right my wrongdoings and find a road to redemption with the people of Wakefield.”

Thater said in the letter that bearing the cost of planting 30 mature trees by a landscaping company would be a big financial burden on his young family.

The councilors were sympathetic, but still had to show Thater that what he did was wrong. At one point Councilor Mehreen Butt said Sylvan Avenue residents have a great watershed area but added that there are signs everywhere saying not to trespass on the town-owned land. “Do we have to put up a fence?” she asked.

Rather than tripling damages, they decided that Thater would pay to plant twice the number of trees that he took down, about half to be dispersed in other areas of the town. Initially, the councilors moved that the cost of the replication was not to exceed a certain amount of money, with Paul DiNocco suggesting about $20,000 at one point. Councilors Butt and Ann Santos wanted that amount to be an exact one that was not “crushing” to a young Wakefield family.

Council Chairman Edward Dombroski added that he wanted the cost of the work to be “reasonable.”

The councilors decided to revisit the cost-capping portion of their motion at an upcoming meeting.