Forest Hills might lose another Darlington Oak, the prized evergreens whose sprawling canopies helped earn the subdivision a reputation as one of Augusta’s most charming residential areas.
This week, a city-owned, 60-foot-tall Darlington Oak tree on Park Avenue with limbs that span nearly 40 yards, and that has offered year-round shade to residents for 85 years, was marked for removal by the Augusta Engineering Department.
The reason remains vague, residents say.
At first, orange tape appeared around the trunk of the tree with a notice that the “tree interferes with the development of public property.” Later, the document was changed to say the “tree is hazardous, i.e. contains decay, extensive deadwood or other structural problems.”
The change came after two Forest Hills homeowners said they wanted to demolish a brick retaining wall and put in a circle driveway, construction of which would damage the oak’s root system beyond repair.
“It was really fishy the way the neighborhood found out about the tree being removed,” Alice Hagler, a 20-year resident of Park Avenue, said on behalf of a group of about 40 homeowners who signed a three-page petition to save the oak. “It all seemed backwards.”
On Wednesday, removal efforts were put on hold, as Augusta Commission member Mary Davis, whose district includes Forest Hills, said officials are determining whether the oak is a “danger to the public or adjoining property,” criteria Augusta’s ordinance requires to be met to remove a tree on a public right-of-way.
Hagler said the notice of demolition appeared out of the blue, two years after the neighborhood hired Dan Bauer, a private arborist from Covington, to survey the trees in their neighborhood.
Bauer found 30 trees needed removal, 200 needed pruning and 120 spaces needed planting. The city removed and trimmed the hazardous varieties, while the neighborhood raised money to plant between 50 and 60 new trees.
Forest Hills residents said they believe the audit has become a springboard for new, younger residents moving into the neighborhood to take down historic hardwoods to make room for larger, more modern homes.
The home’s developer, Jimmy Garren, and owners, Jonathan and Kimberly Lindman, did not return phone messages Wednesday.
“We recognize some of the trees are dying, but this particular one is a city tree that’s part of the charm of the neighborhood,” said Chris Myers, who lives across the street from the endangered oak. “This tree has the potential to live a lot longer life. If you take it down, what’s next?”
Myers and Hagler, whose husband is a Forest Hills native, and several other homeowners appeared before the Augusta-Richmond County Tree Commission with Davis to fight for the tree’s life.
However, Chairman Roy Simkins told the residents the same thing – the city only has a commercial tree ordinance and cannot stop the owner from building where he or she wants.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Simkins said he could not speak for the commission, but said the order to remove the tree is a decision made in the interest of growing healthy trees and eliminating hazardous ones in Augusta.
“We have a general tree problem in Forest Hills,” Simkins said. “The oak in question is not one of the worst trees on the street, but like the rest of them, is on its way out and has some issues that while not terminal tomorrow, will really have some problems in a very few years.”
According to Augusta’s Web site, the Darlington Oak “reaches maturity at approximately 50 years and lives for 70–90 years.”
Both Simkins and Bauer believe, if untouched, the tree would last five to 10 years. However a driveway for the house will cause 50 to 60 percent root loss and shorten the tree’s lifespan.
“With the damage that will occur it is safer for anyone who has to remove it to do it now before the tree becomes more structurally weak and needs to come down later,” Bauer wrote in an e-mail to the neighborhood. “The cost of trying to save the tree with cables, treatments would actually be just as high as the removal cost and again no guarantee that will do anything against the root loss.”
Simkins said he examined the tree, which he estimates was planted around 1928, when the Forest Hills Golf Course was first developed, and believes the “plug should be pulled,” because the tree needs a cable and brace and that the homeowners have offered to plant two new trees to replace it.
“I know there is some serious passion among a few of the homeowners that would just hate to lose another big tree, and I certainly can’t blame them for that, but Mother Nature unfortunately is a serious competitor,” Simkins said. “I wish we could give this tree another 20 to 30 years, but it is just not in the cards.”