Oaks nearing end of life in Durham

By Eric Ferreri
Durham, NC (August 22, 2007)- A garden club’s beautification project 80 years ago is ending all at once. Durham’s majestic willow oaks are dying. Planted all at once by a garden club about 80 years ago, hundreds of these oaks and other towering trees that create massive, cooling umbrellas along neighborhood streets are reaching the end of their life spans at the same time. Many could be gone within a decade.

The slow, steady result… Less shady, less picturesque streets in the neighborhoods where the arching, leafy oak is as much a city symbol as the Durham Bull or the tobacco warehouses. “You’re losing that visual canopy most people who live here have known their whole lives,” said Kevin Lilley, the city’s urban forestry manager. “In some neighborhoods, it’s going to be dramatic.”
Perhaps nowhere in Durham will this change be more pronounced than along the broad shoulders of West Club Boulevard, where an abundance of oaks give the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood so much of its character. There, the neighborhood association recently commissioned Duke graduate student Sharon Yeh to inventory the neighborhood trees. She examined 312 trees along Club Boulevard and Broad Street and determined that 123 of them- 38 percent- are “over mature,” a classification foresters give to trees that have essentially ceased growing and are no longer productive. “It’s like senility for humans,” said Lilley, the city forester.
Although you’ll find the occasional water oak, red maple or crape myrtle along Club Boulevard, the willow oak is by far the predominant tree. These trees are the result of a singular planting spree in the 1930s by a neighborhood garden club on a civic beautification binge. Under perfect circumstances, a willow oak will live 100 years. But in a city, where roots are restricted and car exhaust serves as a toxin, the life span is more like 70 years.
This natural evolution might have financial significance. These trees are a prominent feature for home sellers and real estate agents for whom the term “tree-lined street” is a common descriptor. So what of property values along Watts Street, for example, where all the big old oaks in front of Beth El Synagogue have been replaced by small new ones?
“There’s no question it takes away from both the intrinsic value of the street and the neighborhood and the real estate value,” said Eugene Brown, a City Council member and real estate agent whose firm specializes in homes in Durham’s established neighborhoods.
In Raleigh, old neighborhoods such as Oakwood and Boylan Heights are also dotted with tall, aging trees — many of which are willow oaks and red maples. But there is enough diversity of age and species to protect against a dramatic turnover, said Sally Thigpen, Raleigh’s urban forester.
In Durham, there is no perfect solution. A 50-year-old tree measuring 60 feet high and 4 feet in diameter cannot be replaced with a new tree of the same size. And there are far more obstacles now than there were in the 1930s. Utility lines overhead and gas and water meters in the ground vie for turf.
And the city can plant only in the right of way, that small patch of grass between the curb and the sidewalk. This length varies a great deal. Just on Club Boulevard, it measures as little as 2 feet in some spots, 8 feet in others. The wider the right of way, the larger the tree that can be planted.
The city’s strategy now is to face reality. Because it cannot feasibly replace every 60-foot willow oak with a like tree that will grow to the same height, the idea is to diversify, said Lilley, Durham’s forestry manager. Oaks will be used in some places, but so will crape myrtles, trident maples and redbuds.Which trees are used depends on the width of the right of way and whether any utility lines will impede growth.
As the city replaces old trees with new, it expects to lean heavily on its civic-minded citizenry. To a large extent, neighborhoods play a key role in the revitalization of their roadways. Residents who want trees planted near their homes need simply apply to the city’s neighborhood tree-planting program. The resident splits the cost of the tree with the city, the city plants it, and the resident agrees to water it for a while.
There is more need than willing residents, said Cavett French, the resident tree expert in Durham’s Trinity Park neighborhood. French said her community has planted many trees on Watts, Gloria and other Trinity Park streets in the past few years. “Our goal is to plant the largest tree possible,” she said.
Related Resources:
North Carolina Division of Forest Resources
News & Observer