A steady stream of Forrest Hills residents paid their final respects Wednesday to an 85-year-old Darlington oak on Park Avenue, after one homeowner’s request for a three-year stay of execution for the city-owned tree failed.
“We’re presiding today over the death of one of the most beautiful and magnificent trees in the neighborhood,” said Ed Johnson, 70, a 26-year resident of Forrest Hills.
Johnson was speaking to a group of dog walkers, joggers and longtime property owners who passed the tree around 11 a.m. to watch in disgust as city linemen cut down the 60-foot-tall oak. The crew began sawing at 8 a.m. and expected to finish by this afternoon.
“I am no tree expert, but so far, all I have seen is what looks like pretty healthy wood,” Gould Hagler, 89, a 50-year resident of Park Avenue, said as he glanced at the 40-foot-long branches being cut into several small pieces, none of which showed evidence of rot.
Three weeks ago, Hagler faxed a letter to Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, District 3 Commissioner Mary Davis and City Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell questioning the findings of an evaluation three arborists performed on the oak to determine whether it was a “danger to the public or adjoining property,” criteria that must be met to remove a tree on a public right of way.
In late October, the Augusta Engineering Department marked the tree for removal, but neighborhood residents say the reason remains vague. At first, orange tape appeared around the trunk of the tree with a notice that the oak “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 a Forrest Hills homeowner, Dr. Jerry Lindman, said he wanted to demolish a brick retaining wall and put in a circle driveway in front of a more spacious and modern house he is building on Park Avenue. Lindman has declined comment, but developers have said the family plans to plant two trees in its place.
“This is pitiful,” Park Avenue resident Jim Farmer said. “There’s nothing wrong with the tree. Let’s be honest. They want a circular driveway and the tree is in the way. It’s that simple.”
Henry Frischknecht, a member of Augusta’s tree commission, used a city bucket truck on Oct. 28 to take a closer look at its upper branches and cavities. In an e-mail he sent to Cassell the next day, Frischknecht said the oak “has to be placed in the hazard tree category and should be removed” after he found a 2-foot cavity along the tree’s two major branch intersections. The week before, arborists said that if untouched, the oak would last five to 10 years, but that the Lindmans’ planned circular driveway would cause 50 to 60 percent root loss and shorten the tree’s lifespan.
Hagler argues the remaining oaks along Park Avenue are of the same age, in the same location and have many of the same problems, but are not seen as a public health hazard. He asked the tree be granted a three-year stay of execution for further study and requested an estimate showing how much the city’s evaluation and removal cost local taxpayers.
“The remaining trees, and this one, are old, large, alive, sick and beautiful, providing much wonderful shade and happiness to many people every day. Let it live out its natural life,” he wrote in his letter. “Don’t destroy it prematurely, especially for the resulting approval of a circular driveway.”
Cassell said he has met with Hagler at least twice and spoke with him several times by phone to explain that the tree has been declared a hazard by three arborists and as a result, needs removal. He said the city’s evaluation was free and that tree removal is mostly a labor cost factored into his department’s budget.
“Delaying the process three years was not an option,” said Cassell, citing the results of Frischknecht’s assessment, which showed a 2-foot screwdriver fitting in the trunk of the tree. “Originally, we scheduled the removal in mid-November to give residents time to protest, but it came to a point where three arborists declared the tree was deteriorating. The risk was too great.”
“I am sorry that the neighborhood had to lose such a beautiful oak as this one was,” she said. “Once the arborist deemed the tree a hazard, the city didn’t have an option but to cut it down.”