Columbia officials seek formalized agreement with state over tree removal services

cleblanc@thestate.comJanuary 16, 2013 

Earlewood residents upset after a large shade tree was cut down by the SC Department of Transportation.

BY SAMMY FRETWELL

For a second time within two years, a public outcry about outside parties cutting canopy trees in neighborhoods has prompted Columbia officials to seek written policies to minimize the damage.

City Council on Tuesday directed its forestry and beautification division to formalize procedures with the S.C. Department of Transportation after the state agency last week chopped down a live hardwood shade tree in Earlewood after the sister of a city councilman complained it was creating a hazard.

Only this week did the city and DOT establish a “verbal agreement” that would notify Columbia officials when a tree was to be removed from along a state-maintained road, said Sara Hollar, superintendent of the city division.

Before this week, the two governments talked to each other on a case-by-case basis, Hollar said. “We recognize that there was a communication breakdown,” she told council.

“We need to figure out as a city what we do want from them (DOT),” Hollar said in an interview, “and then see if they’ll agree to it.”

Cities do not have authority to force a state agency to abide by local standards along roads that are DOT’s responsibility to maintain. That amounts to 72 percent of Columbia’s roads, Hollar said.

After the deliberating the Oct. 17 request from Jocelyn Newman, sister of Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, DOT chopped down the tree because its roots had damaged the road and sidewalk to the point that the sidewalk posed a hazard for the handicapped. The state has a responsibility to keep roads and sidewalks safe.

The hardwood was about 52 inches in diameter, said Mike Bagley, a contracts supervisor in DOT’s Richland County office. Earlewood residents said it was a water oak, an estimated 75 feet tall and healthy.

Bagley said Tuesday that his county office does not have an arborist on staff and the removal decision was made within the office.

Rebecca Haynes, president of the Earlewood neighborhood association, said the loss of the tree – a surprise to many residents – was particularly hard to take because her organization was planting trees at the time this one was leveled.

“It was such a sad hypocrisy that were are dealing with,” Haynes told council.

Council told Hollar it wants a written agreement with DOT. “I think a verbal agreement is worth the paper it’s written on,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said, jokingly.

The city reached a written agreement with South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. during the summer of 2011 after the utility gashed trees in the Shandon neighborhood to protect electrical lines from tree limbs. The agreement calls for public notification.

In Charleston, a city renowned for live oaks and magnolias, DOT usually notifies the city when it plans to cut down a big tree in state right-of-way, Charleston’s urban forestry supervisor, Danny Burbage, said Tuesday.

In some cases, city officials talked DOT out of cutting down healthy trees, he said.

Hollar’s boss in Columbia, assistant city manager Missy Gentry, said, “The value we place on trees is different than the value they (DOT) place on them.

“We have now made them aware of the value of our tree canopy,” Gentry said.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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