COLUMBIA — The trees lined up like fugitives. The charges were laid out: fungus, termites, dropping limbs and, of course, heaving the sidewalk.
Columbia city arborist Chad Herwald decoded the symbols of bad health in pictures of eight sweet gums with a PowerPoint presentation Thursday night at the Activity and Recreation Center. The trees had been marked for removal with orange X’s on April 12, sparking neighborhood outcry.
Herwald explained the process for selecting the X-marked sweet gums, based on an inventory of trees in the Old Southwest neighborhood completed by a contractor this month. The inventory, by the Davey Tree Expert Co., assessed the health and risk of about 2,400 trees between Stadium Boulevard, South Providence Road and West Broadway.
Herwald said he "won’t gamble" when it comes to safety of people and property if a tree poses a threat. The city is liable for damage caused by trees on its land, he said.
"If a tree limb falls, we get dragged in on the lawsuits, also," he said.
Another consideration regarding the Westwood trees is making sure the sidewalks are accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Herwald said.
A city ordinance gives the director of public works the right to remove trees that are not properly maintained or trees that "interfere with utilities or street lights, or otherwise endanger the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Columbia" if those trees are in the public street right-of-way, like the Westwood Avenue sweet gums.
The verdict in this case: Three of the eight trees marked with orange X's will be removed because of their extreme health issues and impact on the sidewalk. The future of the other five is still under discussion.
About 30 people, including neighborhood residents and city representatives, attended the meeting held by the Historic Old Southwest Neighborhood Association.
Neighbors proposed alternatives such as building the sidewalk around the trees that are healthy and safe enough to save, or using alternative building materials.
"If there’s some compromise between aesthetics and practicality, I’d like to see it," Westwood Avenue resident Doug Hunt said.
One issue with the tree removal was that most residents on the street did not hear about the plan until the last minute.
"None of us had any idea until the X’s appeared on the trees," said MU English professor and Westwood Avenue resident Frances Dickey, who was the first one to publicize the tree removal to her neighbors. On April 16, a tree removal was postponed after residents called the arborist and city officials to protest the plan.
Herwald, the arborist, said he had spoken with the homeowners who have houses next to most of the trees to be removed. Dickey said next time he should post a notice on the tree notifying the rest of the neighborhood before the removal.
"I’ve learned a lot, and I thank you all for that," Herwald said.
Public Works Director John Glascock said he will consult with the department’s engineers on ways to accommodate the remaining five trees, and said he will follow up with another meeting with the neighborhood residents.