O, Christmas Tree! Park Landlord Says It Must Come Down


A graceful Christmas tree is caught in a tug-of-war between Edgartown leaders and the Benjamin Hall family.

The full-bodied spruce stands 20 feet tall in the center of a treasured park on Main street. The Halls - who have leased the so-called mini-park to the town for decades - are demanding the tree come down.

The property's owners maintain that even in the 50 weeks of the year when it's not draped in stands of lights, the spruce still looks, unmistakably, like a Christmas tree. The Halls say the tree is a "religious icon" and has no business in the public park.

"It's denominational. I wish the town would be a little more sensitive," said Benjamin Hall Jr., who said his family's Jewish heritage is not the issue. "A town's not supposed to promote a religion."

A five-year lease for the mini-park is now entangled in the fate of the spruce; the Halls have declared the spruce must go if the town wants the new lease. The town has had a copy of the proposed lease for more than a year, but neither the conservation commission nor selectmen have signed it.

"It's become a real sore point for the Halls. How a tree can be a religious icon is ridiculous to me," said Fred B. Morgan, a former selectman who represented the town in mini-park lease negotiations.

The spruce was the last tree planted by Larry Mercier, who retired as tree warden and highway superintendent at the end of 2002. It sits where previously a live Christmas tree was staked every December.

The tree will be lit again this year despite the controversy.

It is a centerpiece of Christmas in Edgartown, to be celebrated tomorrow. Chili and baked goods are sold in the park each year to benefit activities at the Edgartown School.

"I just thought I'd save the town some money and put in a permanent tree," said Mr. Mercier, who said he bought the tree - estimated to be about 15 years old - for less than $1,000. The town had been spending several hundred dollars each year for a cut tree.

But no one apparently asked the Halls before planting the spruce.

"They didn't even ask permission. The town is the worst tenant we've ever had," said Mr. Hall, whose family rents out many retail shops in downtown Edgartown as well as several residential properties. Since early this year, Mr. Hall said, they've been asking the town to remove the tree. His letters have gone unanswered, he said.

It hasn't ever been a perfect tenant-landlord relationship between the town and the Halls. The whole arrangement began shortly after a 1961 fire destroyed the Elm Theatre, a movie house owned by Alfred Hall, grandfather of Benjamin Jr. For many years thereafter, the 6,000-square-foot property was nothing but a hole in the ground filled with vines, trees and trash passersby would toss over the six-foot fence surrounding the burned-out spot. The Halls allowed a few citizens to fill in the spot and install benches and trees. The town eventually took stewardship of the park, paying a nominal fee each year and picking up the tax bill in exchange for keeping the space open to the public.

At least twice during the 25-year history of the town mini-park, efforts to take the park by eminent domain have come and gone. The Halls say they still intend, one day, to rebuild that movie theatre. The Martha's Vineyard Commission and town boards signed off on movie theatre plans in the late 1980s. A modified version was also approved some years later.

"In due time, we intend to move ahead with that project. We have other priorities right now," said Mr. Hall, whose family owns the movie theatres in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.

For now, the town is behind about $2,500 in rent, Mr. Hall says. The new, yet-unsigned lease calls for a modest rent hike to help cover increases in the property owner's insurance. The new lease calls for $15,801 the first year to catch up on back payments. Yearly rent would then drop down to $11,300 the next year and increase about $800 each year for the next three. The town has been paying about $5,000 a year, plus more than $3,000 in property taxes.

"We've just let this situation continue because we hope that cooler heads will prevail," said Mr. Hall.

But the spruce must go. Conservation commission members briefly discussed relocating the tree last month but reached no decision.

"If they don't remove it," said Mr. Hall, "we will. And we won't spend lots of money digging it up. We'll just cut it down and drag it out of there."