An arborist hired by the city of Richmond Hill in 2014 to determine the condition of the centuries-old oaks at the intersection of Highways 144 and 17 and to suggest abatement options to save the trees determined that the oaks were damaged beyond repair and should be removed.
“It is the professional opinion and recommendation of this arborist that abatement options cannot reduce the hazard situations presented; therefore, these trees should be removed,” Jerry Holcomb wrote in his March 20, 2014, report.
A certified arborist from the Georgia Department of Transportation concurred with Holcomb’s report in June 2014.
Holcomb gave both trees a “hazard rating” of 10. A 12 is considered the most severe score. He wrote that the scores mean “both trees have been determined to have potential structural injury and defects that could cause the trees to fail.”
The city announced Monday that the trees will be removed next week.
“While we are devastated by the loss of these majestic oak trees, their removal is necessary for the safety of Richmond Hill residents,” Mayor Howard Fowler said in a news release.
Assistant City Manager Scott Allison said the work to take the trees down should take two days, with another two days needed to remove the debris. Any traffic impact will be to the right-turn lane from westbound Highway 144 onto northbound 17 and should be “intermittent,” Allison said. The cost will be about $14,000.
“I feel much of the same sentiment regarding the trees,” Councilman Russ Carpenter said regarding public outcry over the announcement. “As a tree hugger who helped implement Richmond Hill’s first tree ordinance, this is a terrible loss to say the least. I wish we were announcing the oaks could be saved.”
Holcomb’s report indicated that widening Highway 144 in 2013 “encroached within the critical root zone” of the trees because roots had to be cut back for curb installation and for the placement of electrical boxes that control traffic signals. He also reported that pruning has removed about 40 percent of the canopy of the trees and offset the balance of the oaks.
Holcomb said a 2007 tree inventory done by the city found that the oaks were in “fair condition,” and recommendations were made to monitor them yearly.
“The city has tried for years to save the trees,” Carpenter added. “Some time ago, we were notified the trees were in trouble because of paving on both sides of the trees. Bryan’s population growth necessitated wider roads.”
Holcomb’s report said the proximity of the trees to the road and the parking lot and gas pumps of the Clyde’s store at the location “creates an area of potential hazards.”
“Savannah was successfully sued for millions of dollars when a dying oak limb fell on a woman, injuring her terribly,” Carpenter said. “If we continue to keep the trees despite knowing that they are dying, we may be making our city liable for a costly lawsuit.”
A conduit also is being installed at the intersection as part of a Georgia Department of Transportation project that will put traffic signals on mast arms, removing all overhead wiring. The city will then proceed with landscaping all four corners using a $50,000 GDOT grant. Plans call for the landscape redesign to have a monument to the oak trees.
Allison said the landscaping and new traffic signals are not the cause for the oak trees being removed.
“The trees are irreplaceable, but Richmond Hill has plans in place to beautify all four sides of the crossroads intersection,” Carpenter said. “It won’t look as great as the majestic oaks, but given some time for growth it will be something our residents are proud of.”