A majestic, 300-plus-year-old bur oak tree in Lexington that survived a brush with development five years ago is back in the limelight as an issue in another development proposal on the same piece of property.
Ball Homes Inc. wants to build a mixture of apartments and single-family homes on the roughly 25-acre site, located just off Harrodsburg Road at Military Pike.
Some nearby residents worry, however, that a collector road included in the plan could pass too close to the huge old oak's root system and threaten a tree that might have sprouted about the time Daniel Boone's father was born about 1669.
Ball Homes officials say they've changed their development plans to preserve the venerable old oak, as well as some younger but still significantly large trees nearby.
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However, opponents aren't convinced. They want detailed plans and assurances that the bur oak will be kept safe as a unique chunk of Fayette County's recent history.
"This tree has survived so many things: storms, droughts, fires, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War," said Dr. Loren Larson, one of those pushing to save the big oak. "There is no statute of limitations of trees. We cannot lose this tree."
The matter will be discussed during a public hearing that will be held Tuesday at the Urban County Council's work session.
The same bur oak was at issue in 2008, when developer Kevin Crouse proposed to build 193 townhouses on the site near Military Pike. Nearby residents quickly formed a group called Friends of the Historic South Elkhorn Area Bur Oak Tree and fought the to save the tree.
Urban County Council members ultimately turned down the 2008 plans over concerns about the tree and the development's potential impact on traffic.
Five years later, the tree is still around, but there is a developer with a new and different development plan.
Rena Wiseman, associate general counsel and development manager for Ball Homes, says the company wants to build 118 apartment units and 45 single-family homes on the site. But she said the company has carefully made provisions to protect the old bur oak.
Wiseman said that in the 2008 plan, the main road into and out of the property would have run straight through the oak tree. But she said Ball Homes plans a different route for the road into the development, which would curve around the south side of the oak; not through it.
"We've designed around the tree, and we've done that solely to work around the tree," she said.
Ball Homes also has retained an arborist to recommend steps to help protect the tree, Wiseman said.
A key question may be how close to the tree the entrance road will be.
Dave Leonard, an arborist who has been advising residents interested in preserving the old oak, contends that the road should be at least 100 feet from the trunk of the old tree to minimize disturbance to its root system. The distance probably should be more than that, but 100 feet would be "forgivable," he said.
"The farther away the better, but the tree should survive if this is done," Leonard said last week. "But there is no guideline or best practice anywhere that says the tree would survive if you do it at a 50-foot radius."
Wiseman said she didn't know exactly how far away the road would be without having plans in front of her. But she said Ball Home intends to preserve the old bur oak and other trees near it.
"We have worked very hard on the design, and we are trying to do it in a way that we think is going to allow those trees to survive for whatever their life span is," she said. "We're trying to do it right."
Tom Kimmeer, a Lexington tree physiologist who has studied the old oak tree near Military Pike for years, said he's discussed the issue with Ball Homes officials and thinks their street-route plan will help preserve the old tree.
"I think they're going to do what needs to be done."
But both he and Leonard contend that the old tree will need careful management — including fertilization, irrigation and trimming — to keep it healthy over the long term. Just what will need to be done is a developing science, Kimmerer said.
"We really do not know much about managing these ancient trees; we don't have much experience," he said. "In England, where they have much more experience, they have an 800-page manual in how to take care of old trees."
The old bur oak off Harrodsburg Road might be a good place to start learning, Kimmerer said.