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Lexington seeks to protect its oldest trees

One big tree is on the north side of town, one on the south side. Both have stood their ground for perhaps three centuries, since long before there was a Lexington.

In the last several weeks, the two "pre-settlement" bur oaks have been threatened by chain saws and bulldozers.

The north side tree was wounded but survived. The south side tree probably will be preserved, but it is not yet out of the woods.

Just being around living things that have been here for several hundred years, weathering storms, giving shade, producing oxygen and enduring, stirs something in people.

The chance of losing them, and others like them, has spurred discussion on how the city can do more to protect the dwindling number of large, spreading bur oaks, chinquapin oaks and blue ashes found in the city and the surrounding countryside.

Also a part of the discussion: To what extent are large old trees a community asset, even when they are on private property?

The twin threats coming so close together caught the attention of the Lexington Tree Board, which started work last week to protect the "heritage trees." The board hopes to have an ordinance ready to send to the mayor for Urban County Council consideration in time for Arbor Day next spring.

Karen Angelucci, the tree board's chairwoman, talked at a meeting Wednesday about an ordinance that covers trees on public property, and private trees that are nominated by their owners.

But Tim Queary, the city's urban forester, said he would like to see something stronger.

If a tree has been standing for centuries anywhere in Fayette County, he said, it should get special consideration.

"We should be able to say this tree really belongs to the community, and in order to remove it, there would have to be a permitting process," Queary said.

Almost a goner

A couple of weeks ago, a tree-service truck pulled up to the oak behind the Four Points Sheraton in North Lexington. Workers began cutting limbs in preparation for taking the whole tree down.

The hotel's owner and the owner of the tree service disagree over whether the work was authorized, but people driving by on Newtown Pike or Interstate 64-75 saw what was happening and started calling City Hall.

Officials did some quick research and found that in 1996, when a McDonald's was built next door on what was then hotel property, the development plan showed the old oak tree and specified that it must be preserved.

The oak has some missing and abbreviated limbs, but it still stands.

Regardless of whether the hotel wanted the oak cut down, Queary said, it could have been a goner, because trees on private property have no protection.

"The tree appears to be healthy, but without that note on the development plan, there would be nothing to save it," he said.

There also is no procedure for keeping track of such notes made when a development is approved, or of enforcing them.

Queary said he realizes that his idea faces a rough road. But, he pointed out, trees on private property in the city's historic districts already get special protection: If they are more than 10 inches in diameter, a property owner needs permission before cutting them.

For trees outside of historic districts, life is more precarious.

Since early in this decade, development plans have been required to show "significant trees" that might be in the way.

But there is nothing to stop a developer from clearing trees before filing a development plan. (Trees cut within the last year must be shown, but once a centuries-old tree is gone, any number of young trees can't replace it.)

And, even when a significant tree is shown, it won't necessarily be spared.

In 2002, Queary was checking one of the first plans that showed such a tree. He found an unusually large blue ash in a cow pasture that was becoming a subdivision near the intersection of Man o' War Boulevard and Winchester Road.

The tree was large enough to be a national co-champion for its species, but the development was already too far along to change, Queary said.

A street now runs where the old ash stood.

Moving a street?

Another significant tree shown on a plan is the recently threatened 300-year-old bur oak on the south side of town.

It stands alongside Harrodsburg Road across from Military Pike. A developer wants to put 193 townhouses on the 25 acres that include the tree.

The city's long-range plans call for a "collector" street (one that links the development with other major streets) if that tract is developed. And state road regulations say that if a collector street intersects with Harrodsburg Road in that area, it must be across from Military Pike.

Those two rules would mean the high ground on which the tree stands would be cut away, dooming the tree.

In late August, the Fayette County Planning Commission, which doesn't have to follow the long-range plan, approved a zone change for the property but rejected the development plan that showed a collector street.

Bill Lear, the developer's attorney, said a new design has been prepared that includes a smaller street that enters the development from a different angle, sparing the tree.

Lear said he is optimistic that state highway officials will approve the new route before the rezoning issue comes before the Urban County Council on Oct. 28.

In the case of that tree, Queary said, road plans were made with no thought that there might be a large tree in a way.

One problem is that no one knows where the old trees are, or how many remain. But it is clear that development and storms are taking their toll.

In 1950, a researcher drove around Fayette County and counted 370 huge bur oaks that were on public land or could be seen from public roads in Fayette County.

In the late 1970s, biologist and author Mary Wharton counted again and found 199. In a 1990 interview, Wharton said many of the trees in her count already were gone.

Last week, arborist Dave Leonard said that he and Jim Lempke, curator of native plants at The Arboretum on Alumni Drive, plan to retrace Wharton's steps to see what is left. Computer programs, such as Google Earth, that use satellite photos also might be used.

The tree board, in addition to working on an ordinance, also is asking people to nominate trees that are a century or more old to be recognized.

The idea is to increase appreciation and awareness of the trees. Angelucci, the tree board chairwoman, said the heritage trees probably will get plaques or certificates. Tom Kimmerer, a sustainability consultant and former UK forestry professor who lives on Jesselin Drive, has the largest white oak in Lexington in his back yard.

Because white oaks aren't naturally found in this area, he thinks it was planted, perhaps in the late 1700s.

He said he doesn't think that requiring old trees to be protected should be part of a city ordinance. But if an ordinance is passed that allows owners to voluntarily put their trees into a protected status, his will be among them.

"When I someday sell my house, I'm going to put a binding clause in the deed," he said. "You can't cut the tree."