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Residents upset over pruning of Ronkonkoma tree planted in memory of WWII vet

World War II Navy veteran George Okvist, 91,

World War II Navy veteran George Okvist, 91, peers at a historical marker near a tree dedicated in memory of his childhood friend, Navy Ensign David Lloyd Girardet, whose plane was shot down during the war. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

A beloved Ronkonkoma tree that has stood in honor of war veterans for more than 70 years was pruned by its owner, angering residents who regard it as a local landmark.

Some lower limbs of the 70-foot spruce, known to locals as the World War II memorial tree, were cut off in recent weeks amid construction of a retail building on the property at the northwest corner of Hawkins Avenue and Portion Road. 

The tree is protected by a covenant that bars owners of the property from cutting it down, Brookhaven Town officials said. The covenant does not prevent the owner from removing limbs, they said.

That explanation failed to appease Ellyn Okvist, a community historian who leads the Lake Ronkonkoma Heritage Association. The group had designated the tree as one of 26 community landmarks.

"It was hacked," Okvist said Friday as she stood near the tree with her father, World War II Navy veteran George Okvist, 91, and other residents. "That's not a trim."

Brookhaven property records show the parcel, at 135 Portion Rd., is owned by Rondo LLC of Douglaston, Queens. Town officials said the company is building a restaurant and pizzeria with outdoor seating at the site.

Attempts to reach the company were unsuccessful. New York State records show a Rondo LLC located in Westbury, but do not show a phone number for the firm.

Town Attorney Annette Eaderesto said the planning board required Rondo LLC to maintain the tree as a condition of receiving approval of a site plan to build the restaurant. She said the company is allowed to trim the tree as part of its maintenance.

Okvist said the tree was planted around 1945 by Lake Ronkonkoma resident Bunny Gubner in honor of U.S. Navy Ensign David Lloyd Girardet, who grew up on the property and died in the waning days of World War II when his plane was shot down over the South Pacific. The tree later was embraced by other veterans  as a symbol of their sacrifices, Okvist said. 

She said she was buoyed last year when the town enacted a landmark tree code designed to protect trees considered to have historical or social significance. Ronkonkoma civic leaders nominated the spruce to be protected under the law, she said.

No trees have been designated since the law was enacted, town officials said.

Luke Ormond, an environmental analyst for Brookhaven, said he inspected the tree when Okvist reported it had been damaged. He said the lower branches that were removed had been "problematic" as construction continued at the site.

“The work that they did appears to be done professionally,” Ormond said. “We didn’t really see anything that was of concern.”

Okvist said she hopes the town reconsiders and takes steps to protect the tree.

"We're going to have to revisit this with the town, most definitely," she said.

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