To tree or not to tree, that is the question; Town Council ponders future of Memorial Park

To tree or not to tree, that is the question; Town Council ponders future of Memorial Park
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Arborist and urban planner Nancy Stairs of North Carolina Forestry Service pointed out which trees are posing immediate and near term risks — and liabilities — for the Town.

By Taylor Welsh and David Rogers. November 15, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — For some attending Tuesday night’s Blowing Rock Town Council meeting, the discussion about Memorial Park’s trees that are in poor condition was proactive. For others, it was beating a dead horse — or in this case, a dead tree.

COVER IMAGE: Irene Sawyer, front left, presents Jennifer Brown (Parks & Recreation) and each of the Town Council members and Town Manager Ed Evans (far left) a token of appreciation for their support of the High Country Breast Cancer Foundation’s 5K Walk/Run in Blowing Rock, which raised more than $28,000. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Blowing Rock News coverage of Blowing Rock Town Government is made possible by a sponsorship from Blowing Rock Medical Park and PLUS Urgent Care, divisions of UNC-Caldwell Health Care System

In the movies, love may be a many splendor-ed thing, but when it comes to city parks, too much love engenders not only high use of the park but real and potential damage to the ambiance that makes the park special.

Sue Sweeting (center) lobbied for an independent arborist to be consulted.

For several weeks now, members of Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners, mayor and Town staffers have contemplated what to do about problems with some of Memorial Park’s most beloved trees. True, Memorial Park and its big ol’ trees are, in many respects, the very character of the central village atmosphere, but especially with it being brought to the governing body’s attention that many of the trees are at best diseased — if not already dead or dying — the Town’s liability increases should property be damaged or, even worse, a person gets injured or killed. Complicating the issue: the problem only gets worse over time if nothing is done to mitigate the problem(s).

Scattered throughout Memorial Park but mostly toward the front, near Main Street, seven large red maple trees and a cherry tree are in poor condition, if not dying or dead, according to an October 13, 2017, report by arborist and urban planner Nancy Stairs of the North Carolina Forestry Service. Especially the red maple trees are plagued with a fungi that is killing the trees from the inside out. The disease-producing microorganisms, inonotus, attack the roots and create large “deadwood” branches dangling from the tree canopies above and eventually weaken, then kill the entire tree.

Love…contributed to the stress and decline of the trees.

Pickett: “We don’t need to spend more money (on another consulting arborist)…She told each and every one of us what we need to do…She is not just an arborist, but an urban planner, too.”

Stairs concludes toward the end of her report to the Commissioners that the trees, especially the ones along the front, along Main Street, have been afforded too much love by residents and visitors.

“The love and high use of the area has contributed to the stress and decline of the trees,” Stairs writes before listing specific causes:

  • Soil compaction from foot traffic
  • Maintenance to maintain and encourage turf (in the park)
  • Trenching for the installation of electrical boxes
  • Mowing and weed trimming damage
  • Poor maintenance and pruning practices

In her report, Stairs reminds Town Council members that, “The Town has a responsibility to mitigate risk on public property. Tree conditions that indicate risk of failure have been observed and documented, and recommendations made. The Town must act in a responsible manner to address these concerns.”

The North Carolina Forestry Service’s Director of Urban Forestry also counsels, “The opportunity to plan for the future in a comprehensive way is a positive aspect of this painful situation. Tree species selection, site remediation, proper planting and pruning practices, as well as mulching and protection can be incorporated into the future of Memorial Park.”

The Town must act in a responsible manner.

From the discussion among and between the Commissioners and Mayor in front of a jammed Town Council chamber Tuesday evening, it was apparent that some of the Town’s top policymakers had done a better job of doing their homework in reading Stairs’ Forestry Service report and recommendations. At best, they interpreted Stairs’ comments and recommendations differently. At worst, they jumped to conclusions without reading the entire report.

Commissioner Jim Steele (center) sought compromise and a suggestion to “get it all on the table” as to alternatives, timeline, and cost.

When discussion time came, Commissioner Sue Sweeting wished to look to an independent arborist to help formulate the best plan for the park, but not every Council member agreed.

“Nancy (Stairs) offered her assistance and expertise,” Commissioner Ray Pickett said in response to Sweeting’s statement, noting that Stairs is not only a professional arborist but also an urban planner. “She told each and every one of us that she will get us the exact plans of what she recommends and wants us to do. I don’t think we need to go out and spend more money and hire somebody else when you have someone like her, with her expertise, (already) telling you what to do.”

The discussion switched gears, shifting from how a plan should be devised to what the plan should be, as well as how serious the safety issue is in having decaying or dying trees in a park that hosts so many children and their families every day.

Among the audience members, heads began to nod when Commissioners discussed taking out a couple of trees at a time, presumably because of the location of among the most seriously damaged, with five of them lining the front entrances to the park. Taking out only a couple at a time would help preserve the park’s visual appeal.

If you take out trees, you need to do them all or else you can’t build the protective wall — and the new trees’ growth would be challenged because of their having to compete for sunlight beside the big mature trees.

While taking out one or two trees at a time to preserve the park’s aesthetic character might seem the ideal solution, when the Commissioners asked Blowing Rock Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Brown for her perspective and opinion, the veteran town staffer referenced the recommendations contained in Stairs report and her suggestion for taking steps to protect any newly planted trees, allowing them to grow without being trampled on, including the creation of a bed for the trees and the construction of a low stone wall behind the park benches facing Main Street.

“If you are going to two of the front trees,” Brown noted while referencing the report and her subsequent conversations with the author, Stairs, “you need to do them all or else you can’t build the wall.  You don’t want to take out just two or three trees at a time because when you go back (later) and remove the other trees, you will be damaging the new trees that are trying to grow next to them.”

As here with Mayor Pro Tem Albert Yount, Sawyer presented a token of appreciation from her foundation to each of the Commissioners.

Brown also hinted that younger, newly planted trees would be fighting for sunlight if alongside the much larger, more mature trees, which might inhibit or slow down their growth.

Town Manager Ed Evans observed, “We are not talking about clear-cutting; we are talking about taking out trees that are dangerous to (people) in the park.”

Early in his presentation, Evans identified eight trees that Stairs’ study recommended for removal. Later he added that there are more than 25 trees in the park that are in good condition, including five on the so-called front row (facing Main Street), seven in the center of the park, and 11 trees near the playground, tennis court and basketball courts.  He added that two hemlocks surrounding the dying cherry tree (nearer Martin House) are in poor condition, but suggested that the Town can spray them and perform root injections that would keep them sustainable.

Evans also pointed out that one tree (Tree “I” in the picture) is completely dead and that he had already given Town staff the thumbs up on removing it. “The only reason we have not removed it yet is because we have not had the time to get to it yet.

“But it is dead-dead,” he added while noting that it had no leaves at any time during the past year.

Because not everyone among the Town Council members agreed on a unified course of action, Commissioner Jim Steele moved that Council accept the Memorial Park tree report as provided by Stairs, but before the first Town Council meeting of 2018, instructed Parks & Recreation to work with Stairs to create an action plan with a timetable and costs of implementation, including a full evaluation of each tree in the Park and elsewhere on Town property. Seconded by Pickett, the motion passed.

After the Council meeting’s regular session and while the Commissioners and Mayor were in closed session to discuss a potential real estate acquisition, one audience member noted to Blowing Rock News, “While tonight’s discussion was all over the place and really not well-organized by any of the council members, this was probably the most informative of all previous sessions as to why some of the trees must be removed and at least some of them, immediately.  Not all of the commissioners really spoke up tonight, but at least from what was articulated during this discussion the only one of the commissioners who really seemed to have done their homework and fully digested the report was Ray Pickett. Maybe he didn’t do a good job several weeks ago when this first came up of explaining his position and why he felt the way he did, but tonight he made sense.”


Teresa Buckwalter of Destination by Design presented survey results and new ideas for Sunset Gateway

Also under Old Business, the Commissioners heard a report from Teresa Buckwalter, owner of Destination by Design regarding the Sunset Drive Gateway Project. She provided results from the online survey conducted over the past couple of months. No decision was made by the Town Council.

Under New Business, the Commissioners approved a request by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce to use two inflatable figures in Memorial Park for the annual “Holiday Stroll.” The figures have been used from time to time for the last 10 years, but no one has ever come before Council to gain official approval.

Also under New Business, Evans recalled for the Mayor and Commissioners that on Monday, October 23, 2017, Blowing Rock received and unprecedented amount of rainfall, over seven inches over a 15-hour period, with four and a half inches of that falling over a three hour period in the afternoon. Evans noted that the runoff exceeded the capabilities of the Town’s storm drainage systems in most areas of town, with an especially high impact on Laurel Lane. He observed that Laurel Lane serves as an earthen dam for Broyhill Lake and that while the lake was full, the spillway functioned as designed and allowed for safe discharge of the stormwater into the stream below the lake.

However, the town manager reported, stormwater also flowed down Wonderland Trail and Laurel Lane, exiting the roadway by flowing over the road shoulder across from the lake with the runoff causing the slope failure. This compromised the sidewalk and roadbed under Laurel Lane, as well as some of the trees below Laurel Lane.  The damage was mitigated by Town staff’s quick recognition of the problem and closing off the eastbound lane of traffic, he noted. Other damage was incurred on Laurel Lane further north, nearer Davant Field.

Evans noted that staff had reached out to contractors for immediate evaluation and solicitation of bids, as well as calling Town engineer McGill Associates for an evaluation of the slide area and potential remedies. Staff also called on a geotechnical engineering firm, ECS Southeast LLP, to evaluate the contractor reports and make additional suggestions because of the slide area’s proximity to Broyhill Lake, Laurel Lane and the discharge area.

Laurel Lane slope erosion. Photographic image courtesy of Town of Blowing Rock

No action on the necessary repairs is not a possibility, Evans maintained to the Council members, because to leave the area “as is” posed a risk of additional damage to the slope and eventually undermine Laurel Lane (where it serves as the Broyhill Lake dam). He advanced that Town Staff’s recommendation covers four phases of remediation and reconstruction, culminating in a complete redesign and implementation of a new stormwater drainage system for that area.

  • PHASE 1 — Initial slope repair focusing on removal of all vegetation and loose soil, the placement of a geotextile fabric on top of the slope, and adding a layer of rip-rap armoring over the geotextile fabric, which should permit the road (Laurel Lane) to be repaired for traffic
  • PHASE 2 — Hydraulic and Geotechnical Study — to evaluate the drainage patterns of Laurel Lane and Wonderland Trail to determine the overall stability of the embankment.
  • PHASE 3 — Repair Design — Includes the design and bidding of the new storm drainage and slope stabilization system
  • PHASE 4 — Construction
Kevin Rothrock points out certain features of the Chestnut Development project

Evans held out the possibility that at least some of the costs of the project may be recovered from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in that legislation is currently being considered in Congress to declare Watauga County (and other municipalities in North Carolina) a federal disaster area as a result of the storms on October 23rd.

After departmental reports, the Commissioners, Mayor, Town Manager and Town Attorney (Allen Moseley) went into closed session to consider a real estate acquisition.  Upon coming out of closed session, Blowing Rock News was advised that no action was taken and that the prospective transaction was a “dead issue.”  Before closing the meeting, the Commissioners approved a request by Evans to be excused from the July 2018 Town Council meeting because of plans to be out of the country. They gave unanimous consent to that request.



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