Residents and Utility Come Together to Preserve Rare Trees

By Philip Haldiman, The Arizona Republic

Phoenix, AZ (November 1, 2012) – For decades, an east Phoenix neighborhood has been home to hundreds of scarce black-sphinx date palm trees which two years ago were listed as a safety hazard because they were growing too close to power lines. Fearing the loss of this rare tree canopy, neighbors and the utility company found a way to spare them—tree care, moving some trees, and a long-term management plan.

A tiny nook of a popular east Phoenix neighborhood is home to the only black-sphinx date palm tree grove in the world. Hundreds of the palm trees canopy the neighborhood, creating a character unique to the Mountgrove neighborhood in Arcadia. Two years ago, many of the trees were threatened, but today, the grove remains largely intact. Salt River Project recently closed the book on a conflict that at one point threatened the existence of the rare variety of date tree.

For decades, the Mountgrove neighborhood has been home to the trees, which experts say don’t exist in such quantities anywhere else.Two years ago, SRP listed many of them as safety hazards because they were growing too close to power lines, heightening the possibility of fires or blackouts. That meant they needed to go. Neighbors feared that would mean the loss of many of the trees they had grown to love.

But last month, the utility company resolved the conflict after “unprecedented” and “extensive negotiations” with the neighbors, said Gordon Lind, principal ombudsman in the consumer-affairs group at SRP. “Because of the variety of the trees, we went to great lengths,” Lind said. “The reaction from the neighborhood was favorable. We had a lot of cooperation.”

SRP found that 57 trees close to power lines posed a threat. Residents were offered one of three options depending on the proximity of their trees to power lines, including compensation of $1,000 for any black-sphinx tree near power lines that homeowners allowed the utility to remove.

SRP also offered to relocate them within the neighborhood for free, or to trim them twice annually at the utility’s expense until 2016, after which the owners would have to pay.

Lind said all affected residents signed on for one of the three options, and only 14 trees were removed. A dozen trees were relocated within the neighborhood, and 31 residents signed up for the trim, he said. The last five trees were removed Sept. 26.

SRP had initially planned to remove and destroy all 57. Lind said the utility company trims trees near power lines every three years, but the black-sphinx palm fronds grow rapidly, and they had come in contact with some of the lines.

“This happens periodically,” he said. “Most trees can be trimmed, but sometimes they have to be removed. These trees were difficult or impossible to keep clear of the lines without repetitive trimming.” Lind said only SRP can authorize a company to trim trees that are close to power lines.

“The residents are passionate about these trees,” he said. “There was a worry that the neighbors would pay someone themselves to trim them.”Dick Malone, president of the property-owners association in Mountgrove, said the trees predate the lines and were planted in the 1940s, and they’ve been maintained ever since.

“Everything has worked out,” Malone said. “Honestly, I couldn’t be happier.”

Scott Frische, curator of horticulture at the Phoenix Zoo, said the black-sphinx date produced by the trees is considered by Phoenicians an exceptional date. It is available at some specialty stores in the Valley.

The Mountgrove neighborhood was once home to a plant that processed the dates for commercial sale. The trees exist in other parts of the Valley, but only as individuals or in very small groups, he said.

The variety eventually could be endangered, unless somebody actively propagates them, Frische said. “If all the neighborhood’s black-sphinx palm trees died tomorrow, they’d be hard pressed to find that many to replace them,” Frische said.

Original article source: The Arizona Republic, Phoenix neighborhood community preserving rare date palm trees