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Safety, maintenance headaches put an end to student hang out spot

fr treesgoneA row of four stately evergreens that anchored the front of Waynesville Middle School — providing both shade and a meeting hub on campus — were cut down two weeks ago to the chagrin of students and teachers.

“Everyone liked the trees a lot. They were really nice if we were waiting for someone, or to just hang out,” said Kyla Larsen, an eighth-grader. “It is a disappointment.”

With the trees now gone, Brittney Jones has been left in a quandary over an art sketch she was doing of one of the trees.

“I seriously just got the basics, and now, I can’t finish it,” said Jones, a 10th-grader at Tuscola High. She often ended up under the trees while waiting for her boyfriend and brother to finish football practice, which is held on Waynesville Middle School’s field.

She started sketching one of the trees for an art class and even picked a tiny sprig from a branch so she could work on the detail of the needles at home. That sprig is now the only surviving piece of the trees.

“I don’t know who made the decision to cut them,” Jones said. “I don’t even understand why.”

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Waynesville Middle Principal Trevor Putnam said there were several reasons for taking down the trees, but the main one was roof damage.

The trees — and more specifically their millions of tiny needles falling on the roof during the years — had shaved a few years off its life. The school will replace the roof this year, four years ahead of schedule at a cost of almost $300,000.

“I get they were twice as old as me, and I get that they were prestigious and pretty and everyone liked them and they provided shade,” Putnam said.

But, those benefits couldn’t justify the maintenance costs.

The needles sifted down between the gravel that covers the flat-style roof, explained Tracy Hargrove, Haywood Schools’ maintenance director.

“What happens is all those billions of little pine needles basically turn into dirt and hold moisture on top of that roof and causes it to deteriorate,” Hargrove said.

Hargrove kept getting maintenance orders from Putnam to fix leaks in the roof below the trees, thus propelling the replacement ahead of its normal 20-year schedule.

“That’s one reason. Another is the sidewalks,” Hargrove said. The tree roots kept pushing up concrete sidewalk pads.

“You got a trip hazard,” Hargrove said. “We’ve had two injuries to parents or grandparents who have been walking down that sidewalk.”

As in many tree-cutting controversies, another argument for cutting was that the trees would have eventually died anyway. 

“It was a matter of time. It may have been five or 10 more years, but it was just a matter time,” Putnam said.

The trees would start dropping dead limbs and then be at risk of toppling over, Putnam said.

“If those things blew over, especially with kids in the building….” Putnam said, trailing off at the thought of it. “We see this as a proactive way to stop a problem from occurring.” During Putnam's previous tenure as a principal at Central Elementary in Waynesville, a grove of white pine trees on campus were cut down over fears about large limbs crashing down from great heights.

Hargrove said it was Putnam who brought the maintenance issues with the trees to his attention. While he and Putnam both recommended cutting the trees, the final decision was approved by the Haywood County Board of Education.

Waynesville electric department crews, which have bucket trucks and tree-trimming equipment, pitched in to cut down the trees for the school.

Students watched as the trees came down a piece at a time. At first, it seemed perhaps the limbs were just being trimmed. But, after the limbs were shaved, the top was cut off and the sections of the trunk taken down one by one, the students realized the trees would soon be gone.

Rumors have circulated on campus postulating various reasons for the trees’ fate. One was that the trees’ roots were getting into the wires of the school’s electrical system. Another was that school officials were afraid the trees would fall on the building.

Students who once loitered under the trees — which doubled as a meet-up place before walking home at the end of the day — have found their social sphere in turmoil, unsure of where they should, or could, congregate now.

There was once a continual row of the trees in front of the school. A few still remain at one end of campus where the sports fields are.

Some students have begun sitting under this remaining grove while waiting to meet friends or be picked up. But they’re on the other side of a chain link fence that borders the practice fields and are hard to get to — not exactly in the thick of campus comings and goings.

The fate of this final row is still up in the air. They could be spared for now. For starters, they aren’t near any buildings, and thus dropping needles don’t pose roof problems. That row also screens nearby homes from the intrusive glare of giant stadium lights. The football field at Waynesville Middle is the home field for Tuscola High football games, and towering pole lights would shine down on the adjacent neighborhood if not for the thick evergreen trees, Putnam said.

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