Man and tree

From Tom English‘s point of view, having city officials tell him the Siberian elm next to his house probably won’t come down in a winter storm is like saying the Titanic could never sink.

Earlier this year, he looked at the twisted, 16-inch-diameter tree that leans toward his North Asheville home and thought about the ice storms that winter predictably brings. The Siberian elm — Ulmus pumila — stands more than 40 feet high. From a distance, it appears to twine around a light pole at the edge of the alley behind his house. In fact, it’s about half a foot from the pole, its base appearing to rise out of the curb and adjacent pavement.

English figured he’d have to cut the tree down, rather than risk having it fall this winter — especially after he did a little research. From conversations with national tree experts, English had learned that Siberian elms, “of all the hardwoods in North America, [are] the most likely to fall.” Says English, “The failure rate for that [species of] tree is more than four times the rate of [other trees].”

But English can’t simply cut down the tree and plant another, sturdier species. The Siberian elm in question sits within a city right of way near Kimberly Avenue. City staff told him he could be fined up to $10,000 if he took down the elm. So last month, English took his case to the Asheville Tree Commission, which has a say in the fate of trees located on city property and rights of way.

After sending a delegation to check out the tree, commission members tackled the issue at their Nov. 20 meeting. But far from giving English relief, they seemed inclined to save the tree.

Tree Commission Chair Kase Latven, while sympathetic to English’s plight, observed that the Siberian elm in question shows none of the usual signs of a tree in imminent danger of falling, such as fractures at its base or buckling of the earth on the side opposite the direction of its lean angle. “It’s safe in the ground,” Latven asserted. The potential for damage, then, comes from its limbs, he concluded. Latven noted that the assessment team that visited the site in early November had ascertained that the crown of the tree had many dead limbs, which could be removed to reduce the risk to English’s home during a storm.

Latven and other commission members also heeded a legal point made by Asheville Public Works Director Mark Combs: “Do we allow … for the removal of a tree because of the potential of what could happen? Taking trees down for the potential [to fall] would make us look like [the nearly treeless] Russell, Kansas.”

That led Tree Commission member Sofia Mannos to remark, “The Tree Commission here is walking a fine line [between] protecting trees and protecting taxpayers.” She urged English to accept city staff’s recommendation — that the city trim dead limbs around the tree’s crown and remove a large branch hanging over English’s garage.

English countered: “I’m simply concerned about the species and the size. The Siberian elm is the most brittle tree in America, period.”

He cited a study co-authored by Dr. Jeffrey O. Dawson, titled “Ice Storm Damage in Urban Trees.” Based on the results of a 1990 ice storm in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Dr. Dawson and his team reported that “Siberian elm is a brittle, fast-growing species with rough bark and a fine branching pattern which tends to accumulate more ice than trees with less branch surface area. This tree species sustained the greatest damage in Urbana and also in an ice storm in Colorado.”

English also quoted tree expert Michael Dirr, who wrote in 1975 that Siberian elms are “one of … the world’s worst trees [and] a poor ornamental tree that does not deserve to be planted anywhere.”

“I read all this and I look at the tree leaning toward my house and cars [in the driveway], and I don’t feel comfortable,” English pleaded. He also pointed out that, although he’d shared the information about Siberian elms with City Arborist Mark Foster, it had not been given to the two commission members — Dr. Lowell Orbison and Paul Merten — who accompanied Foster on the assessment visit.

Foster conceded that he’d inadvertently neglected to bring copies of the reports the day of the visit.

Nonetheless, he stuck to the conclusions he had made in a formal report to the Tree Commission: “No decay was noted in the plane of lean and no earth mounding or cracking was noted on the side opposite of lean. … This tree would benefit from crown cleaning and the removal of a limb in the plane of lean to lessen weight. [But] the lean angle itself is not sufficient to necessitate removal. … Because of the restrictive growing space this tree may require removal in the future, but it does not presently constitute an emergency.”

Orbison, pressed by English, agreed that Siberian elms aren’t “a first-rate tree for planting in urban settings.” But he also maintained that this particular tree doesn’t seem likely to fall; in the event of a storm, any damage would probably come from falling branches.

The other commissioners agreed with Orbison. “If we take down every tree that had [the] potential [to fall], we’d be axing trees left and right. [If that were adopted] as a policy, we’d be taking out half the trees in Asheville,” said Commission member Monty Wooten.

On a motion by Latven, commission members voted unanimously to preserve the tree, performing the “corrective pruning” recommended by Foster and continuing to monitor the elm’s condition.

Later that day, English commented on his tangle with the commission and with city staff: “I felt like I was beating my head against the wall. They were basically saying [that] if there’s no imminent sign of failure in the tree … there’s nothing they can do about it.” Perplexed by the commission’s decision and pondering whether to appeal to City Council, English added: “In my mind, there’s a difference between might fall and likely to fall. I would like to think I could park my cars in my own driveway and not have city trees fall on them.”

English also noted that Professor Don McLeod — who spearheaded efforts to catalog old-growth trees in these mountains — had been his biology teacher at Brevard High School. “He taught me to love the woods. What’s ironic about all this is that I go to Mount Mitchell and I want to cry, because I remember what those Fraser firs were like, alive. To argue to take down a tree is not something that I do lightly.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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