Stately, but unsteady: Some Piedmont trees deserve closer look, says city worker
by Eddie Burkhalter
May 09, 2013 | 6190 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Craig Russell with the city of Piedmont takes a sample of the core of this large willow oak tree along side South Main Street. He is asking the city to hire an arborist to study city's trees before another one falls. (Photo by Trent Penny / The Anniston Star)
Craig Russell with the city of Piedmont takes a sample of the core of this large willow oak tree along side South Main Street. He is asking the city to hire an arborist to study city's trees before another one falls. (Photo by Trent Penny / The Anniston Star)
PIEDMONT – Michael Ingram and his 15-year-old son found themselves inches from serious injury, possibly death, when a giant oak tree crashed atop the rear of his SUV as a storm ripped through Piedmont on March 18th.

Craig Russell heard the massive oak’s thud from his home a block away, and now he’s asking the city to act before the next close call threatens another life.

As the facilities manager for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, Russell began looking after trees in need of attention many years ago.

He said the tree that nearly hurt Ingram was on a list of trees that need removal, a list he said he’d turned into the city in 2007. Some of the trees on that list were removed, but cost has prohibited the city from getting to them all, Russell said.

A drive down Main Street is all that’s needed to see the scope of Russell’s responsibility. The canopy of green overhead draws the eye, and that’s what people love about small Southern towns, Russell said, but it can come at a cost.

An old oak fell on a car on Southern Avenue in the 1980s, killing three of four in one family, Russell said.

“That’s always stuck in people’s minds. It was just horrible,” Russell said.

He’s asking the city to pay for an arborist to complete a study of the city’s damaged and dangerous trees. With that study, Russell said he will begin addressing the trees individually.

Just such a plan was completed in 2001, Russell said, but it needs updating.

“Many of those trees have fallen since then, and the others are 12 years older, and there have been three summers of drought,” Russell said.

Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

Many of those old oaks were planted as saplings at the turn of the last century, just as the cotton mill began revving the town’s economic engine, hiring farmers off the fields who bought new homes in town with their paychecks.

The mill village is dotted with tall oaks, dwarfing the small one- and two-bedroom bungalows underneath their shade. They hang high above Main Street and Southern Avenue, where children still ride bicycles to school underneath the long limbs.

The story goes that Hoyt Molock — long-time cotton mill worker who died at age 84 in 1994 — spent the summers of his youth riding around town in horse-and-buggy, watering the saplings for a nickel an hour.

The problem, said certified arborist Robert Bussey — who operates Treeworks in Anniston — is what’s taken place in the decades since planting.

“You see that a lot in these towns. A hundred years ago they planted a lot of them along the streets, and the streets have changed since then, Bussey said.

Construction can damage major root arteries, Bussey said, and that damage is often never addressed.

“The trees are thought of secondary, a lot of times,” Bussey said. “Over the years, due to the damage of the roots there ends up being a lot of decay.”

Much of that decay is found in the root system underground, he said, and while some trees may look healthy they can be dangerous.

“The small feeder roots that feed the tree and cause the leaves to come out, they’re all good, but all those bigger roots that hold that thing in the ground have a lot of decay,” Bussey said.

Hurricane Opal in 1995 felled about 50 old-growth trees in Piedmont, and in the years since about the same number have come down, either naturally or by chainsaw, Russell said.

Jacksonville hired an arborist to complete a study on its trees about three years ago, said Mayor Johnny Smith.

Smith said the study, which looked at trees on public land, provided guidelines on how best to preserve the city’s trees, and a list of those that need removal.

“It is expensive,” Smith said, speaking of tree removal. “We couldn’t afford to do them all at one time, so we had to prioritize ...”

“Those trees are kind of like we are. They do have a lifespan ... some of them last a long time, but they run out of time too,” Smith said.

Much of it does come down to money, Russell said, explaining it can cost $6,000 or more to have a tree removed. That cost can be a burden on homeowners who may be required under municipal code to have a tree on their property removed, and on the city for damaged trees on public property.

Bussey said he works with both homeowners and with municipalities.

“Some cities put a lot of money in their trees. Some put very little,” he said.

The study itself, Russell estimates, will cost between $12,000 to $15,000.

But the cost of not having it done may be too high, Russell said. He plans to discuss the matter with the council at the next meeting, set for May 21.

“We have a duty as employees and councilmen to take care of our citizens,” he said. “That includes trees that might fall, and if we have knowledge before time, and we’ve made no action ... That’s why I want to do this.”

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.

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