Sunday, July 21, 2024

More than a dozen trees to be replaced on Market St. due to ‘incurable conditions’

Trees at 1417 Market St. and and 1419 Market St. are part of a plan to remove up to 19 trees along Market Street in downtown Wilmington, with significant crown and trunk decay. (Courtesy city)

WILMINGTON – A handful of 40-to-60 foot tall, fast-growing, short-lived trees, once recommended to serve as street trees because of their rapid growth, are facing removal.  

READ MORE: The city has 30K trees and wants to regulate its canopy to protect future loss

Laurel trees make up 14% of Wilmington’s tree population. Live Oaks make up 8%. These numbers will change in the coming months.

City staff has requested mitigation and replacement of infected laurel oaks and one live oak along nine blocks across Market Street, due to public safety. The trees are located along a busy traffic corridor.

“Decades ago, laurel oaks were recommended street trees throughout the southeast because of how fast they grow and the shade they provide, now these are not great trees,” City of Wilmington’s Director of Community Services Amy Beatty said during Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Beatty credits the laurel oak’s incurable condition, heart rot, to its shortened life span; the trees don’t live more than 50 to 80 years — the same age range of the trees being removed. Then decay takes over from the inside-out caused by multiple, untreatable fungi species. 

City of Wilmington’s Tree Crew Supervisor Kelly Blair noticed a cluster of laurel oaks in a state of disarray this past July, between 12th and 21st streets, prompting proposal for replacement. The trees have significant decay in their trunks and crowns, snags with borers, and structural defects.

“They are on their way out,” Blair said. “Sixteen trees are definite removals, two need to be assessed, with one being a live oak tree.”

Blair said he needs to evaluate two under consideration via bucket truck for an aerial view of the conditions.

The removed trees could be replaced with a variety of species, including live oaks, overcup oaks, triton maple, and others. A final replacement plan will be decided upon before spring planting.

Assistant Director of Community Services Sally Thigpen said they want to replace with trees that have a longer life span, are less immune to disease, and optimal for space and cost. 

Mayor Bill Saffo asked Thigpen if wider space is necessary for trees to prosper. Laurel trees have a 35- to 45-foot spread. 

Thigpen attributed research and landmark studies on soil space as a reference to the cubic feet needed to grow trees of different sizes.

“We’ve accepted that putting a large tree in an urban area would affect the growth and survival rate of the tree,” Thigpen said. “It’s hard to say that any tree in an urban site is ever a permanent installation, but I don’t think we can anticipate street trees living as long as a tree with more root space.”

Councilman Neil Anderson said, based on the presentation, that some of the trees slated for removal looked healthy. He asked whether the city would conduct testing to confirm tree rot.

While trees usually undergo tests to determine the effects of decay and rotting, Blair told city council the city plans to rely on “experience.”

“Advanced testing,” he said, involves tomography — the use of sound waves to measure decay or integrity of a tree. Yet, it’s an expensive process, he added.

“[It] would require an outside contractor,” Blair said. “The problem is that tomography only sounds the trunk, one part of the tree.”

Beatty told Port City Daily, the forestry team does have some resources in its tool belt, but rely on its team’s training as its “most valuable tool.”

The city’s forest management supervisor and tree crew supervisor are certified in tree risk assessment qualifications, she added, with other certifications including arborist municipal specialist, plant health care technician, and board certified master arborist, among others. 

“Their collection of knowledge and skill puts them in an excellent position to identify the health of a tree,” Beatty said.

Construction on the project will be performed in-house in coordination with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which will provide traffic control during road closures. NCDOT owns the roads where the trees are to be removed.

Potential weekday and weekend work will be established once a timeline is assessed, but the plan is for partial to full road closures one to two blocks at a time.

The contract has an 18-month watering requirement that ensures the new trees thrive in the space.

“After 18 months, a tree is generally old enough and healthy enough to survive without extra water,” Beatty said.

As soon as trees come down, the stumps will be ground. City council members inquired about removing the multitude of other stumps throughout the city, which have been around for years.

More than 300 stumps have been found in the vicinity, many due to hurricane destruction. Their removal will be rolled into the project as well, per council request. 

“We’re behind where we want to be with removal of stumps,” Beatty told council.

The city has allocated $50,000 for stump grinding in the next fiscal year budget. To remove all 300-plus stumps, the city would need $240,000, based on the average contractor cost of grinding at $700 per stump.

The remaining funds will come from the tree mitigation fund — money paid by developers that choose to pay a fine rather than replace a tree during construction. There is more than $450,000 in the fund right now. Council also requested quarterly updates on the tree mitigation fund’s balance moving forward.

Anywhere a stump is removed, a tree will be planted come spring, as long as infrastructure in place does not impede the planting, Thigpen said.

While the stump grinding for Market Street versus the other areas of downtown Wilmnington are two different projects, the city intends to bid them out for completion back-to-back.

“I don’t want much lag time,” council member Luke Waddell said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Replanting is planned for early to mid-spring 2024, with bidding to take place after Labor Day weekend. 

There will be signage containing a QR code alerting people of the upcoming project, to be hung two weeks ahead of the project’s start date, according to city staff. 

Port City Daily asked the city how much the total cost of the project will be but did not hear back by press.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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