Fayette County

Development may doom tree

Three hundred years ago, about the time Daniel Boone's father was born, a bur oak acorn sprouted on a piece of high ground on what would become the south side of a city named Lexington.

There was no Commonwealth of Kentucky when bison and elk browsed around the young sapling. No zoning ordinances when a pioneer cleared other trees 200 years ago, but spared the oak because it was producing acorns of its own that were good feed for livestock.

Now the big oak, which has survived fires, storms, droughts and axes, is facing destruction because it is in the way of townhouses and a road — and a city development plan that did not take the tree into consideration.

If it is destroyed, the loss will be another blow to what experts say is a rapidly disappearing landscape that once defined the Bluegrass region.

Hundreds of large, spreading bur oaks — and similar numbers of chinquapin oaks and blue ashes — once dotted the Fayette County countryside. Only a relative handful remain.

Developer Kevin Crouse has applied for a zoning change to build 193 townhouses on about 25 acres on Harrodsburg Road, opposite the intersection with Military Pike.

The rezoning request will be heard by the Fayette County Planning Commission on Thursday. Its staff has recommended that the request be approved.

But a group of people who live in nearby neighborhoods has launched an effort to save the old tree.

They oppose other aspects of the townhouse development, but they have rallied around the tree, creating a group called Friends of the Historic South Elkhorn Area Bur Oak Tree (there's also an e-mail account: buroak300@yahoo.com).

They say, and Crouse's attorney agrees, that it is not the development itself, but rules about where a road must go, that could doom the old oak.

"Unfortunately, some 300 years ago, it was just planted in the wrong spot," said Anne Faulconer, one of the neighbors.

Street would be required

Bill Lear, the attorney, said Crouse is trying to meet two requirements laid out by the city and the state.

The city's comprehensive plan says that if the parcel is developed, there must be a collector street — a roadway designed to move traffic in and out of neighborhoods. That street would connect the townhouses with an already-established neighborhood on the other side of a tributary of South Elkhorn Creek at the back of the property.

And state highway officials say that if there is a collector street, it must meet Harrodsburg Road opposite Military Pike.

Making those two things happen will mean significant grading on the hill where the oak stands. The oak is not in the direct path of the road, but the grading would destroy its extensive root system.

"What has happened is that a number of planning decisions have been made over the years, and they have been made in ignorance of the location of that tree," Lear said.

Crouse and the planning staff worked for a year on trying realignments for the street, but they couldn't make anything work, he said.

The planning commission could, however, decide that the collector street isn't needed, Lear said.

The irony, neighbors say, is that it appears unlikely the collector street would collect traffic from the adjacent neighborhood any time soon, if ever.

The city can require the Crouse to build the street. But because of a court case involving a similar situation in the Dogwood Trace neighborhood, it can't require the developer to build a bridge. And, if a bridge were in the works, neighbors on the other side of the creek probably would oppose it.

"The city has no plans to build the bridge, it has no money to build the bridge," said Lauren Larson, another neighbor fighting for the tree. "They're going to destroy the tree for a road connected to a bridge that will be built who knows when."

The neighbors' group has looked into several ways to protect the tree, including exploring some kind of historic designation for the area.

But Bettie Kerr, director of the city's Division of Historic Preservation, said such effort would have to have been started by a landowner before a zone change was requested.

That would require that the tree was connected to some historically significant building, and even then, the tree wouldn't be completely protected.

On the property next door to the tree is the South Elkhorn Schoolhouse, which was built about 1890.

Ironically, the planning commission staff's recommendation calls for retaining a buffer of trees between the properties to minimize impact on the old school. But the recommendation doesn't mention the big oak.

Jeff Stringer, a University of Kentucky forestry professor who lives in the former schoolhouse, says children who went there probably played in the tree, which would have been old even then.

Tim Queary, Lexington's urban forester, also has looked for ways to save the tree. He even contemplated moving it. But, he said, bur oaks have very long taproots, making that task virtually impossible.

The city's zoning ordinances don't protect the tree, Queary said.

It does fit the definition of a "significant tree," which means it must be shown on the developer's plan. But that doesn't mean it can't be bulldozed.

Oaks 'dropping like flies'

No one is sure how many large bur oaks remain in Fayette County, but the number surely is small.

In 1950, a researcher found 370 huge bur oaks that could be seen from public roads or on public land in Fayette County.

In 1978, Mary Wharton, a biologist and author, counted again and found 199.

In a 1990 interview, Wharton said many of the trees in her count already were gone, with most being cut down to make way for buildings and roads.

She predicted that by the turn of the century, only 30 old bur oaks would remain in the county.

Jim Lempke, curator of native plants at the Arboretum on Alumni Drive, said he has been trying unsuccessfully to get Wharton's census updated.

Although he doesn't have a number, he says the old oaks "have been dropping like flies" and that the few that remain often are surrounded by concrete.

"What's really sad to me is that if you look at the Bluegrass and what makes it distinctive, you look at the big old bur oaks, blue ash and chinquapins," he said. "You see those and you know where you are.

"People should be jumping up and down and saying 'We have to save these trees.'"