Tree removal on Columbia's Westwood Avenue halted at last minute

Monday, April 16, 2012 | 7:12 p.m. CDT; updated 12:03 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 17, 2012
The roots of the sweet gum trees that line Westwood Avenue between West Broadway and West Stewart Road are buckling the sidewalk. The city was planning to remove them until residents recently signed a petition to keep them.

*CLARIFICATION: The details of a possible Wednesday meeting to discuss the trees had not yet been confirmed as of Tuesday morning.

COLUMBIA — The concrete mostly behaves on Westwood Avenue. But at its intersection with West Stewart Road, the sidewalk has become a roller coaster undulating over the roots of three sweet gum trees. The trunk of each bears a red-orange X that was spray-painted there late last week.

Over the weekend, residents in the Old Southwest neighborhood spoke out against the city's plans to remove the trees — and five others — which many said they appreciate despite the buckled sidewalks. A decision was made late Sunday night to temporarily call off the tree removal crew, scheduled to arrive Monday morning.

Frances Dickey, an MU English professor who lives in the neighborhood, said she was surprised there was a plan to cut down the trees. 

"We've lived in this house for a decade, and the sidewalk has always been the same, that is, bumpy," she said.

But Jill Stedem, a spokeswoman for the city's Public Works Department, called the tree roots and uneven sidewalks a "maintenance issue."

"It's torn (sidewalk) panels out, making it a safety issue, as well as making it impossible for people in wheelchairs or mobility issues to use the sidewalks," she said, adding that the trees will continue to grow and create problems.

Dickey said she was motivated to save the trees after she noticed the X-marked trunks across the street from her house Friday night.

After learning of the city's removal plans, she posted an alert about the tree removal to the "Old Southwest and Broadway" Yahoo group. On Sunday afternoon Dickey went door-to-door, talking with neighbors and collecting signatures for a petition.

"We would like to find some solution to the sidewalk problem that would not include cutting down the trees," she said.

Neighbors responded to her emails by contacting Mayor Bob McDavid and other members of the City Council. Barbara Hoppe and Daryl Dudley were the first to respond. Then, at 10:36 p.m. Sunday, City Manager Mike Matthes emailed McDavid and every other council member from his iPhone.

"We will delay the removal until it can be discussed by all interested parties," Matthes said.

That message did not make it to the work crew, though.

Before 8 a.m. Monday, a team from Arthur Ratliff Tree and Stump Removal arrived on Westwood Avenue to begin cutting down the trees. Dickey and other neighbors left their houses to tell them to stop.

"We were just there to cut down trees, so of course (the workers) were surprised," Scott Ratliff, of the tree removal company, said. He was not with the crew at the time.

"We had no inkling there was a problem," he said.

Ratliff directed the team to move on to another job, while he got clarification from the city.

Old Southwest resident Steve Scott said he originally raised the tree issue by asking Ratliff's company to cut down three sweet gums in front of his law firm's office on Westwood, because the trees have caused the sidewalk to crack. But the strip of land between the sidewalk and the curb is city property, so Arthur Ratliff, who has a year-long contract with the city for tree removal, contacted city arborist Chad Herwald.

Scott Ratliff said that late last week Herwald directed him to remove not only the three sweet gums Scott wanted down but also five others on Westwood Avenue.

Herwald declined to comment on his involvement.

Westwood Avenue resident Marjorie Hunt said she enjoys the fall foliage of the sweet gums and was upset when plans for removal were made without talking to other neighbors on the block.

"It would have been nice to know the alternatives and why they rejected the alternatives," Hunt said.

The trees line both sides of the street, creating a canopy over the road.

Dickey said she moved to the street for the effect of the trees. "This is one of the things that really endears Columbia to me."

*Hank Ottinger of the Historic Old Southwest Neighborhood Association said he spoke with Sam Thomas of Public Works about a meeting Wednesday to discuss the trees. As of Tuesday morning, the meeting was not confirmed, and Stedem said no meeting had been planned. 

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Michael Williams April 17, 2012 | 1:16 p.m.

I'm a huge fan of trees; I've personally planted and tended ca. 1000 of them at my farm, plus improve the forest with timber stand improvement.

I'm also a fan of big, stately trees.

Having said all that, I also know that trees reach maturity and start to decline. I don't know the situation here. But, if these trees are showing definite signs of decline, then folks should consider allowing their harvest. If the trunk wood is in good shape, rather than grind it up into mulch, why doesn't the city hire a carpenter to take the trunks and make something with them....benches, judge's bench, tables, etc......for the courthouse, or something for city hall?

I understand the fondness for the trees in the neighborhood. But, please don't be selfish. If these trees are in the decline, you might be able to enjoy them for a while longer....but what will you leave those who come after? These trees are closer to their end than their beginning.

Maybe it's better to harvest and plant new ones that subsequent owners will enjoy as much as you have enjoyed these. Leave a your neighbors/owners did before you arrived.

PS: Also, if the trees are creating a sidewalk hazard, and they are retained, the neighborhood preventing their harvest should legally indemnify the city against accidents.

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