"City Killing Ancient Tree" proclaims a large sign put up in north Lexington over the weekend near a bur oak estimated to be 350 years old.
The sign, and another that mentions the city's "neglect, incompetence + stupidity," was put up by Dave Cooper, an environmental activist who has e-mailed city officials for weeks, warning that work being done around the tree could compact the soil and kill it.
An arborist who visited the tree Monday said it has been damaged by equipment that broke some of its roots. But the old tree — it was here before there was a Lexington — will survive, especially if it gets some tender loving care, arborist Dave Leonard said.
"I'm going to see if I can get someone to adopt this tree, maybe my crew," he said.
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The bur oak was on the rear property line of six houses that used to stand along Shandon and Cabot drives in the Joyland neighborhood. In a $674,000 project — 75 percent federal funds, the rest state and local — the city bought and tore down the houses because heavy rain often flooded them with storm water laced with raw sewage.
Mike Clayborne, the city inspector on the project, said steps were taken to protect the tree. For example, he said the contractor parked a heavy piece of equipment on a driveway that ran near the tree and used that platform to pull out a chain-link fence and honeysuckle bushes. The driveway was then removed.
The scraped soil and broken roots that Leonard found near the tree Monday were caused by digging a trench to put in a silt fence, Clayborne said. The fence was required to keep silt from the bare ground from washing into a stream.
Leonard, looking at the damage Monday, said he thought the city could have asked for permission to skip the silt fence requirement. Mark York, a spokesman for the city's Division of Environmental Quality, said an agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn't allow for a variance.
Leonard used a device with a long metal rod to check the compaction of soil around the tree. Compacting soil by driving heavy equipment over it can kill a tree, but the equipment used to cut the trench for the fence probably wasn't that heavy, he said.
He found some places where the soil was very compacted, and some where it was looser and the rod sank in easily.
He measured the tree and found it is 61 inches in diameter, and used that to estimate its age. He also noted that the tree has a long scar caused by a lightning strike many years ago, and a couple of large dead branches.
There also is a large groundhog hole near the base of the trunk that suggests some of the trunk might be hollow.
Grass seed and straw had been placed around the base of the tree, but Leonard said mulch would be better.
Grass will compete with the tree for moisture and nutrients, he said. Mulch, on the other hand, will invite earthworms, which will work the soil and loosen it.
Tim Queary, Lexington's urban forester, said he had wanted to put mulch around the tree but thought it wouldn't be fair to do that with the Joyland tree when other old trees in city parks aren't mulched because the city can't afford to do it.
Leonard, who is a member of the Lexington Tree Board, said he planned to ask city officials if they would allow the tree to be trimmed, tested for hollowness and mulched.
"The tree will be OK, but it will be nice to make it safer," he said.