City, Old Southwest Columbia residents compromise on fate of trees

Thursday, April 26, 2012 | 9:04 p.m. CDT; updated 2:51 p.m. CDT, Thursday, May 3, 2012
Sweet gum trees line Westwood Avenue between West Broadway and West Stewart Road on Monday. Eight trees were marked for removal, but residents signed a petition to keep the trees.

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.


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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.


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Michael Williams April 26, 2012 | 10:50 p.m.

Be sure and inspect the logs!

If they are good and solid, make something from them for the neighborhood or city. Calling all carpenters and artists......use your imagination. See this link......

Please don't make chips out of good logs from a historical neighborhood. As a last resort, contact a logger and sell/give them to him/her for someone else's use.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 27, 2012 | 6:07 a.m.

My understanding (and it's a secondhand one) is that sweet gum is a difficult wood to dry and work with. Planks tend to warp and cup while drying, and it's hard on tools. It has an interlocking grain, so it's pretty if cut right. It's supposed to look a lot like walnut if quarter sawn.

As firewood, it's almost impossible to split (this is a firsthand experience). When a 12 pound steel maul just makes a dent in a measly 8 inch log and bounces back, this is not a good sign.

It'd be nice to see something made with the trees also. I'd take almost any other wood over sweet gum, however.


(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble April 27, 2012 | 8:08 a.m.

@Michael, I agree with you completely. If Mark's right, I hope something useful can be done with the wood. It always frustrates me to see massive piles of trees being burned at new developments - wood that could likely help build or heat shelter for someone else - so hopefully this removal can be a positive somehow. There's enough handiness and craftiness in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Building sidewalks around the trees should be easy to do - it's been done in my neighborhood - and if the city can think outside of plain concrete for a little while, there are proven alternate materials which can both handle the roots better and be more pleasant to walk on. This could be good opportunity for the city to try something innovative on a small scale.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams April 27, 2012 | 9:12 a.m.

Kevin: One negative aspect of my proposal is that loggers/sawyers do not like working with "yard" trees...which these are.

People nail all sorts of damnphool things to trees, and one good sized nail can tear up a say nothing of the safety hazard to the worker. Yard trees are usually avoided by the professionals.

Most trees you see burning in developments are trash trees....I use the word "trash" to mean too knotty, too warped, too short, wrong species, too small diameter, etc. It would indeed be good firewood, but you can imagine the liability involved if the developer allowed you and I to get in there with a chainsaw.....too many ways to get sued and, unfortunately, we are a litigious society. If I was the owner, I certainly wouldn't allow it. In most cases, there usually is an insufficient number of good logs to make it worthwhile for a logger.

As for "going around" the trees with a sidewalk, remember that the root system of a tree essentially extends to the same diameter as the crown. That's a pretty big diameter. I wouldn't do it for trees showing their age.

MarkF: I've not worked with sweet gum before, so I'll take your word for it. Those logs look long and straight, but I have no idea how many flaws they have. A lot depends upon how well they were pruned when young, whether they are hollow, are they infested, presence of fungi, etc. If the logs are sound, I'm guessing the only way to make something good happen is for an enterprising sawyer/woodworker to contract with the neighborhood or city for payment to make something nice.

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