Fayette County

Harrodsburg Road developers try to preserve massive bur oak, which may be 500 years old

This large bur oak is being  protected by  developers as they are building new houses and  apartments near Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. The tree is thought to be more than 300 years old.
This large bur oak is being protected by developers as they are building new houses and apartments near Harrodsburg Road and Military Pike. The tree is thought to be more than 300 years old. Herald-Leader

A towering bur oak, more than 300 years old, is dominating the eastern skyline just off Harrodsburg Road at Military Pike in Lexington, now that crews have removed undergrowth that hid much of it.

"I gasped the first time I saw it after the brush was cleared off," said tree physiologist Tom Kimmerer, who wrote a protection plan for the tree. "It's absolutely stunning, way taller than anything else around here."

Kimmerer said he thinks the bur oak could be almost 500 years old, not the 300-odd years often estimated.

The venerable tree has been at the center of preservation disputes several times over the past several years.

The most recent one was last year, when some Lexington residents tried to block a Ball Homes plan for apartments and single-family homes off Harrodsburg Road because they feared that the old tree would suffer. Ball Homes insisted that it would make sure the tree was protected, and the Urban County Council ultimately approved its development plan.

Now, the company is getting started on development. It also is moving ahead with plans to protect the tree, which Kimmerer was commissioned to develop.

Kimmerer said the first steps included having Big Beaver Tree Co. remove the brush and vines that had grown up around the foot of the tree. Some old, dead branches also were removed from the bur oak itself, he said.

"The tree now has been fenced off very carefully, and no construction equipment will be allowed inside the fence," Kimmerer said last week. "Ball Homes is being careful to make sure all the contractors know they may not violate the fence."

The next step will be a thick layer of paper, covered by mulch, to kill and keep down weeds in a three-quarter-acre area around the trunk of the huge tree.

"It will have three-quarters of an acre of land all to itself," Kimmerer said.

Some old, pre-existing pavement near the tree will be gently removed in the next few days, Kimmerer said.

The subdivision plan calls for a new road to go past the bur oak. But Ball Homes officials have said that a minimum 50-foot protection zone will be maintained around the tree.

"I think the closest it will come to the tree is about 72 feet," Kimmerer said.

Kimmerer operates Venerable Trees Inc., a non-profit group dedicated to preserving old trees in the Bluegrass.

He said his inspection indicates that the roots of the Harrodsburg Road bur oak go all the way down to bedrock.

"This tree is rooted very deep," he said. "So I'm less worried about the road and other possible soil disturbances than I might be with another tree. Even so, we'll be careful to stay as far away as possible and not compact the soil."

Lexington arborist Dave Leonard, who previously has advised residents trying to preserve the bur oak, said recent preservation efforts have made the huge tree more visible. But he said it still faces challenges.

"It's not out of the woods yet," he said, contending that only time will tell how the old tree will adjust to adjacent development.

Kimmerer agreed that there are no guarantees.

"People ask me about the survival of this tree, and it's kind of a 110-year-old man going to the doctor and asking whether he'll live another 50 years," he said. "This tree is in fine shape today. But old trees are old trees."

Kimmerer said the Harrodsburg Road tree might be a lot older than many have suspected.

He said he has conducted a preliminary analysis of a slab of wood from a dead bur oak tree off South Broadway. That slab, taken from the trunk 14 feet about ground level, could date to the 1650s, he said.

"I think we're starting to realize that these trees are really, really old," he said "But in the case of this tree off Harrodsburg Road we'll probably never know for sure because the tree is hollow."