The battle to save the 150-year-old pohutukawa in front of the old Taita Hotel has become a matter of faith for citizens who say the church promised to save it, and the church that says it’s doing God’s work by cutting it down.
About 50 Taita residents and a man from Taihape protested under the tree outside the Hosannah World Outreach Centre (Taita Baptist Church) during Sunday morning’s church services.
The church says the tree must make way for a large new auditorium but could be two years away while the church raises money. But the tree has to go “sooner rather than later”.
Long-time residents stood on one side of the huge tree saying they were told the tree would be saved.
Church senior pastor Mark Lau Young stood under the other side of the tree insisting the church had never promised to save the tree, only that it would try.
The church got planning permission for expansion after a Hutt City Council committee meeting which has become the bone of contention between residents, the church and Mayor David Ogden, a stand-in at it.
It has turned ugly, say residents. They say men parked cars on church property and smashed their protest sign on the public power pole in front of the tree.
A spokeswoman for a residents ad hoc committee said, “This tree has mana. They say they have a legal right to remove it but I believe we have a moral right. We ask the church to honor the sixth commandment: thou shalt not kill.”
Steve Pilcher, who played in the tree as a lad, said, “I think it’s an abomination that these people can cut it down for the sake of a building. It’s just diabolical.”
Residents want council, and particularly Mayor Odgen, to save it, and fully protect “our tree” forever.
Councillor Angus Finlayson said he was disturbed by the decision for years. He wrote to the church twice but got no answer.
He said, “The church was told that if at all possible they had to save this tree. And the pastor stood up and said ‘we’ll do everything possible to save it’.
Mr Lau Young told Hutt News “We’ve been up front we told our neighbors, we told them our plans. We never promised we’d save the tree. We just said we’d look at all options first.”
Daphne McGrath lives next door. She says Mr Lau Young showed her the expansion plans, but “there was nothing about the tree coming down. I’m really angry I didn’t know”.
Mr Lau Young said the church made a contribution to the wider community. “It’s a great tree but it’s in the way of something bigger and better for our congregation.”
He said 50 residents signed a statement of support. Cutting the tree was a “last resort” because council hadn’t been able to help.
“We could have cut the tree down at any time, but we haven’t because we didn’t want to be accused of chopping down a community treasure in the middle of the night I think we’ll still be accused of it anyway.”
Like thieves in the night, the contractors came in and felled this 150 year old tree. The church hasn’t done anything about enlarging the church. The rumour around Taita in later months was somebody absconded with their money. The facts of the matter was they had no legal permission to make enlargements. The plans weren’t worth the paper they were written on.
Acknowledgements: Hutt News