How the axe fell
Talk of cutting the historic courthouse maples in Waynesville has come and gone during the years.
Reasons varied. It was hard to get grass to grow underneath. The trees masked the grandness of the historic courthouse. Heavy equipment parked under the trees during courthouse renovations damaged the root systems.
The talk always subsided, however, until suddenly resurfacing during a county commissioner meeting in early February. Commissioner Kevin Ensley complained that the trees kept grass from growing and blocked views of the courthouse. Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed, “Something should be done to improve the courthouse lawn and its appearance.”
At their next meeting, two weeks later, commissioners unanimously voted to cut down the trees.
The vote seemed sudden. The prospect of actually cutting the trees was discussed and promptly voted on all at the same meeting, allowing for little to no public input.
Haywood County commissioners have a formal policy not to vote on controversial issues the first time they appear on a meeting agenda.
“Usually if it is something controversial, we don’t bring it up that day and vote on it,” Ensley said.
Specifically, county policy states that: “Agenda items considered particularly complicated, controversial, and/or of unusual importance should be tabled until at least the next regularly scheduled meeting to allow for public input and member reflection and study.”
Commissioners say they didn’t violate their policy, however. For starters, they didn’t see cutting all the courthouse maples as controversial — the litmus test for whether the policy applies.
“If there was going to be any controversy about the trees, they would have been at the meeting,” said Chairman Mark Swanger, citing the absence of any public comment that day.
However, it’s unclear how those with an opinion would have known to come to the meeting in the first place. The line “disposition of courthouse trees” appeared on commissioners’ meeting agenda ahead of time, but only those who make a habit of checking the agenda would have noticed it.
Therein lies the reason for the county’s policy: to allow awareness of an issue to circulate through the community before an official decision is made.
Ensley pointed out that the courthouse trees had been mentioned at their meeting two weeks prior.
“We had been talking about it,” Ensley said.
However, there was no indication at the first meeting in February that an arborist would be hired to assess the trees — let alone that they could be cut down. The appearance of the trees was merely mentioned in passing, and hardly put the public on alert that cutting them was an option.
Still, the policy stipulating a “waiting period” for controversial issues is inherently subjective. Were cutting the trees controversial? Swanger said not in his opinion.
“I have had enough experience that you know if there is controversy,” Swanger said.
The controversy may have just taken some time to manifest, however. Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal found herself on the receiving calls from the public, even though the town had no role in the decision.
“I just wanted to let you know that we continue to field a lot of questions, concerns and complaints about the trees coming down at the courthouse. I thought that the furor had died down, but for some reason, we’ve gotten a lot of calls this morning,” Onieal wrote in an April 3 email to the County Manager Marty Stamey.
One particularly “irate” woman even talked about organizing a protest, she said.
Ultimately, commissioners said the liability issues of falling limbs predicated swift action. In the intervening two weeks — between the first passing mention of the trees and the decision to cut them down — an arborist was hired to assess the trees.
Once the county had been presented with a professional opinion warning of the risk, it had to act, Swanger said.
“Once we are told it is a liability and danger to people and property, you can’t mess around. You have to eliminate the threat. You are on notice,” Swanger said.
Dale Burris, the county maintenance director, battled the falling limbs littering the courthouse lawn regularly.
“Almost every day multiple limbs fall from the trees, which has made me very uncomfortable with citizens entering and leaving the Historic Courthouse,” Burris wrote in an email enlisting the services of a certified arborist, dated Feb. 12. “There is also some type of black bug with an orange marking on its back infesting the trees.”
The email asked arborist Bill Leatherwood to evaluate the state of the trees. The very next afternoon, he conducted an assessment.
The grass is always greener
If it’s any consolation for those still mourning the maples, they might take solace knowing that cutting down the trees even had the support of Mib Medford, a long-time tree champion and arbor-activist in Waynesville.
Medford died last year but had twice gone to county commissioners and said start over.
“The angels celebrated in heaven with mother,” said Philan Medford, Mib’s daughter who inherited her mother’s appreciation for trees and is a self-taught urban landscaping expert.
Medford withheld judgment on whether the trees were actually diseased — the justification used by county leaders for cutting the trees. But she could attest the sugar maples were dealt a fatal blow years ago — at least aesthetically — that sealed their fate.
“You top a tree, that’s a sin. You top the central leader, it doesn’t grow a new central leader. The new branches grow out to the side. It’s like you cut off someone’s head, and they keep growing arms,” Medford said. “If they had limbed them up instead, then; by now, you could see the courthouse from the sidewalk.”
Had the center trunk grown, and the side branches been limbed up, the sugar maples would have created a high, open canopy with dappled light below and clear views of the courthouse for pedestrians walking below the branches.
As for what to plant back, it’s a no-brainer, Medford said.
“Sugar maples, sugar maples, sugar maples,” Medford said. “Part of it is honoring heritage. Those were the original street trees on Main Street.”
The county plans to replace the trees, but is considering a shorter tree species that would provide some shade without concealing so much of the historic courthouse facade.
But Medford said shorter trees would actually block views of the courthouse more than taller ones would. From a pedestrian’s vantage point, smaller trees would obstruct their direct line of sight when looking up at the building. With tall trees, if properly limbed up, your line of sight would be below the branches and unobstructed.
“It’s geometry,” Medford said.
The county plans to replant new trees sometime this spring or early summer — however, county leaders have not decided what type of tree yet. Or how many. Or where.
The county currently isn’t planning on hiring a professional landscape architect or designer to help. Instead, county employees have asked for input from with the Town of Waynesville, the Downtown Waynesville Association, the State Extension Office, Haywood Community College’s Horticulture Program and state forest rangers as they craft a new landscape plan for the historic courthouse.
There’s one plus: the grass might grow better now, said Downtown Waynesville Association Director Buffy Phillips. The lawn has several bare patches that the county plans to reseed.
Phillips hopes the new landscaping is installed before the summer street dances and festivals ramp up, but the events would go on regardless, she said.
The fact that the courthouse lawn will not remain naked is a relief to those who enjoyed the courthouse’s foliage, even though they would take years to grow back, or may only be a smaller specimen of tree.
“If they are replacing them with healthier trees, that’s OK,” said 24-year-old Hannah Redman, who works in Mast’s shoe department. “That is where a lot of people like to sit.”
Redman described the current look of the historic courthouse lawn as lonely.
Just last week, the commissioners voted to fell the single evergreen tree that sat on the corner of the courthouse lawn as well because it looked out of place — lonely perhaps — without the sugar maples, they decided.
They are currently looking for a company to grind up the tree stumps.