The board considered cutting down the trees in 2007, citing their poor health, but received backlash from residents, who pleaded with the county to spare the trees.
But after six years, the issue has resurfaced.
“Some constituents had mentioned to board members that they didn’t look safe,” said Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger.
The county commissioned Arborist Bill Leatherwood of Hendersonville to evaluate the health and safety of the 12 trees that encircle the old courthouse. Upon inspection, Leatherwood labeled seven of the trees — all sugar maples — with high hazard ratings, meaning they could likely cause harm to a person or property. The remained four sugar maples posed less risk but Leatherwood still recommended cutting them down before their condition worsened.
After reviewing Leatherwood’s comments, the board of commissioners was adamant that the trees needed to be cut down ASAP.
“I have realized how serious the issue is,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley. “We need to move as fast as possible.”
The large maples on the courthouse lawn serve as a shady gathering place during downtown festivals, parades and street dances. It could take decades for new trees planted in their place to claim the same iconic status.
Only one tree, a red spruce, has little or no risk of falling or having large limbs dislodge and will remain part of the courthouse’s landscape.
The other 11 trees are anywhere from 40 to 100 years old, Leatherwood estimated. About 20 years ago, they were topped, which is the practice of removing whole treetops.
“It develops a very weak tree when you do that,” Leatherwood said. “It creates a hazard.”
Since then, little or no work was done to try to save the trees from deteriorating. Improper care has caused the trees to have cracks, decay, root problems, cankers and weak branch unions. These problems, mixed with a strong, precise gust of wind, could cause the trees to fall over or for limbs to detach, possibly hurting a passerby or the courthouse itself.
“Trees like humans have an expected life span. The overall neglect to properly maintain these trees has shortened this and now makes it necessary to remove them and start over. The hazardous conditions make this matter of extreme urgency for several trees as they are a liability to the county,” Leatherwood’s analysis stated.
Leatherwood said he did not go into the project wanting to get rid of the trees. In fact, he has a picture of his great-great grandfather William H. Leatherwood sitting under maple trees outside the courthouse in the late 1890s or early 1900s.
“It’s not what people wanted to hear and it’s not what I wanted to say,” Leatherwood said.
In his report, Leatherwood admitted that the maples that his great-great grandfather reclined under were likely replaced in the 1970s and encouraged the county to replant new trees.
“Replacing these trees doesn’t stop the history of the maples on the courthouse lawn; it only allows it to continue in a safe and healthier environment,” the report stated.
Waynesville resident and former county commissioner Mary Ann Enloe was a staunch supporter of keeping the trees in 2007.
“Yes, in fact, I said, ‘They could cut down the trees on the day that my hearse rolled by,’” Enloe said.
But after reading Leatherwood’s report, even she has switched sides — now simply advocating to replace the trees that will be lost.
“I guess they can’t be salvaged,” Enloe said. “No grass can grow under those trees. Some of the trees are diseased. I understand.”
After voting to fell all the trees, Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick, feeling a pull on his heartstrings, motioned to save one of the 11 doomed maples. Kirkpatrick said his grandmother would not be happy to find out he voted to dispose of the trees so he wanted to keep just one.
However, none of the other commissioners felt the same way.
“Apologize to your grandmother for me,” said Swanger after Kirkpatrick’s motion failed.
County leaders did agree, however, to send the wood from the maples to Richard Reeves, who runs a firewood assistance program for the needy in Haywood County.
The county plans to replace the dying and dead trees and already has a landscaping plan in place, but the commissioners will have to review and possibly tweak it now that the trees are definitely coming down. It is unknown if the county will plant one tree for each of the 11 it plans to chop down and where the new trees will be placed.