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Tom Eblen: Award-winning plan that saved giant bur oak seen as a model for other ancient trees

A venerable bur oak dominates the skyline where Military Pike meets Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is preserving the tree on more than three-quarters of an acre.
A venerable bur oak dominates the skyline where Military Pike meets Harrodsburg Road. Ball Homes is preserving the tree on more than three-quarters of an acre. Herald-Leader

The most fought-over tree in Lexington is now more noticeable than ever. Cleared of surrounding brush, it dominates the skyline at the intersection of Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike.

The giant bur oak was last in the news 13 months ago, when neighbors cited concerns for its welfare among their objections to Ball Homes' plan to develop 25 acres behind it into 42 single-family homes and 196 apartments.

The city rejected another developer's plan for townhouses on the site in 2008 because the tree could have been lost or damaged.

But Ball Homes' proposal was approved after the company developed perhaps the most detailed plan yet for conserving one of the giant, centuries-old trees that have been rapidly disappearing.

Last week, that plan won Ball Homes an award from the Lexington-Fayette County Environmental Commission. Tom Kimmerer, a tree physiologist who developed the plan, hopes it will become a model for other local builders and future developments.

Ball Homes hired Kimmerer, a consultant and former University of Kentucky forestry professor, to work with the company's regular arborist, Ian Hoffman of Big Beaver Tree Service.

Kimmerer has studied these specimens of blue ash, shellbark hickory and bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, which grow better and live longer in Central Kentucky than in any other place in America.

Many of these trees were well-established before Daniel Boone set foot in Kentucky nearly two and a half centuries ago. They are icons of the Bluegrass landscape and the oldest living things in Kentucky.

But dozens, if not hundreds, have been cut down or killed in recent decades by development. Because these species don't reproduce well in urban areas, younger trees have not been growing up to replace them.

Last year Kimmerer started a nonprofit organization, Venerable Trees, to research and help people learn how to care for and propagate these trees.

This bur oak had been in the yard of a 1970s house, since demolished. A large driveway was built below its canopy. That kind of soil compaction can be deadly.

So the conservation plan's first move was to carefully remove the driveway and erect a fence to keep construction equipment at least 72 feet away from the tree. Six inches of wood mulch was then spread on three-fourths of an acre, which will be left open around the tree.

"One of the things I was impressed with about Ball Homes was they didn't say, 'This is how much space we'll give you.' They said, 'How much space does this tree need?'" Kimmerer said. "There was some back and forth and a few compromises here and there, but they were quite generous in allocating space for the tree."

Rena Wiseman, Ball Homes' associate general counsel, said the company realized saving the tree was worth the trouble and expense because it would be a symbol for the neighborhood.

"It's the focal point," said Lee Fields, Ball Homes' vice president of development. "Besides, trees going down cost us money. The lots that always sell first are the ones with the trees."

Kimmerer and Hoffman assessed the tree's health and removed several damaged branches. They installed a lightning rod to help prevent future strikes.

The tree has long been thought to be more than 300 years old. Kimmerer guesses it is closer to 500 years old. Still, despite lightning strikes over the centuries and hollow spots, the oak is quite healthy.

"There's no reason in principle why that tree couldn't live for hundreds of years longer," he said.

Ball Homes plans to retain ownership of the tree and surrounding land, including the apartment buildings. That should help ensure the tree's long-term care, Kimmerer said, adding, "Our management plan for this tree goes way beyond just the construction phase."

Kimmerer is one of only two tree physiologists in Kentucky. As it happens, the other one, UK forestry professor Jeff Stringer, lives in a renovated old schoolhouse next door to the bur oak. For years, he has been closely watching the tree's health and debates about its future.

"That tree is in really good shape, and this plan should help keep it that way," Stringer said, adding that its prospects for survival are better than they have been in decades.

In addition to avoiding soil compaction around a tree, Kimmerer said the most important factors in good long-term care include frequent inspections for signs of stress and keeping lawn fertilizers and herbicides away.

"Modern lawn care is anathema to old trees," he said.

Kimmerer has surveyed many of the open tracts inside Lexington's Urban Services Boundary, which will eventually be developed.

"There are at least 50 of these ancient trees that are going to get in the way of development or, conversely, could be seen as symbols of a new development," Kimmerer said. "That's one of the encouraging things about this project is that the tree will become emblematic of the whole neighborhood.

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