The state Department of Transportation is defending its decision to chop down a majestic shade tree in north Columbia last week, saying Monday the big oak was a danger to the community.
Although the tree was healthy, DOT officials said it had caused so much damage to a state maintained sidewalk and road that they had virtually no choice but to remove the Columbia Avenue oak.
Roots extended 2 feet into the road, and the sidewalk no longer met standards for handicapped people, officials said. The state has a responsibility to protect motorists and pedestrians from hazardous conditions, they said. The sidewalk and street now can be repaired, officials said.
“We don’t go looking to cut down live trees, but we assessed it for any kind of potential hazards,” said Mike Bagley, a contracts supervisor with the agency’s Richland County office.
“We talked it over and made the decision that in order to get the sidewalk back into compliance, that we were going to have to address it. That is when the decision was made to ‘Let’s just go ahead and take the tree out.’”
The DOT’s decision, however, continued to reverberate Monday in a city with an estimated 45,000 trees, but limited ability to preserve many of them. City Council members are expected to discuss the Earlewood tree removal at their meeting tonight.
The city has an ordinance that protects trees in its rights-of-way, but the highway department said more than 60 percent of the roads in Columbia are DOT-maintained like the one in Earlewood. That means cutting a tree on state highway rights-of-way is a DOT decision. Columbia also has had issues with SCE&G over the utility’s trimming of large hardwoods to maintain power lines.
In Earlewood, Bagley said the DOT received a complaint Oct. 17 from one resident about potential hazards from the tree in the state right-of-way. He declined to name the resident, but said the person was also concerned the tree would destabilize the foundation of a house. Bagley conceded the state didn’t tell the city or the public about its plan. But he also noted that DOT staff members deliberated for more than two months before making the final call to chop down the tree.
Earlewood resident David Parker said the community should have known about the DOT’s plans. Columbia city officials only learned about the tree removal when workers saw it in progress, said Sara Hollar, the city’s forestry superintendent.
“Somebody could have picked up the phone and said ‘There’s a healthy 100 year old tree we are going to chop down in Columbia,” Parker said.
The tree in Earlewood is said to have been a water oak 75 feet tall and approaching 100 years old. Residents said the tree was too wide to reach around. One person was so upset about the cutting that he or she spray-painted the stump with the words “Tree Murder RIP.’’
Parker said he continues to worry if other trees in Earlewood are vulnerable to unannounced DOT decisions. The community prides itself on its trees, and one recently won an award as a heritage specimen, he said.
“The sidewalk and the street around that tree are somewhat impacted’’ by roots, he said. “Does that mean that the DOT will come in and rip out all trees?’’
Earlewood’s dispute isn’t necessarily unique to Columbia. Statewide, the DOT maintains more than 60 percent of South Carolina’s thoroughfares, one of the highest percentages in the nation.
As a result, agency officials cut thousands of trees each year, mostly after storms destabilize or damage them, said state maintenance engineer David Cook. Cutting down healthy, individual trees is not common, although it is necessary in some cases, he and Bagley said.
Disputes are most notable in urban areas, Cook said. In the Earlewood case, it was not possible to remove the roots and leave the tree, he said.
“If you take those roots out, you are going to kill the tree, so you have kind of created a new hazard,” he said. “If you leave the tree, you have the liability because it is creating those hazards. If you take the tree out you’ve got some unhappy citizens and the public.’’
Mayor Steve Benjamin called the Columbia Avenue incident “unfortunate.”
“My hope is that this incident, while unfortunate, will bring about a renewed commitment to increased communication and cooperation between the city, the Department of Transportation and all of our regional partners,” Benjamin said.