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Tree-cutting for billboard upsets Wesley Heights residents

Some Wesley Heights residents are upset that recent tree removal by a billboard company has exposed homes to more traffic noise from nearby Interstate 77.

But Adams Outdoor Advertising properly followed a state law that allows billboard companies and businesses to clear vegetation for better visibility – and city officials say there is little they can do.

Companies have cut more than 4,400 trees in Charlotte since the law passed in March 2012, said City Arborist Don McSween.

The Wesley Heights clearing brought an extra sting because the trees were a large screen between the historic neighborhood and I-77.

“There was a lot of tree canopy, and it probably appears worse than it would somewhere else,” said Laura Brewer, the city’s assistant arborist.

She said 198 trees ranging in diameter from 4 to 22 inches were cleared for better billboard visibility, which is a high number for clearing job.

Wesley Heights resident Melanie Mullen said the noise never stops and called it “intrusive to our neighborhood.”

The law bypassed municipal rules about cutting vegetation and gave the N.C. Department of Transportation the final say on whether trees can be cut. Now the city can only make comments or recommendations to the state regarding chopping.

For Wesley Heights, the city recommended that trees not be cut because they shielded a historic neighborhood from the highway. Irwin Creek also runs along I-77 in Wesley Heights, and McSween said he objected to clearing the area because of potential erosion.

Gina Shell, the city’s deputy director of engineering and property management, said the state has not heeded the city’s suggestions.

“We try to continue to make the points that are important to the city and important in our urban forest, but the ultimate decision is really the state’s,” she said.

Nicole Meister of the N.C. DOT said that the state is simply complying with the new law.

“Our main role is to make sure (companies cut vegetation) in a safe manner and don’t go beyond what they’re allowed to do,” she said. “We’re kind of a middle man to ensure it’s done properly, but beyond that, it really is the legislation, and we don’t have any authority to say, ‘you can do this’ or ‘you can’t do this.’ ”

Adams spokeswoman Karen Price said she wasn’t aware that some neighbors took issue with clearing the site and said the company communicated closely with the N.C. DOT, city and residents beforehand.

Price said Adams has cut at more than 70 percent of the areas that the company wants to improve for visibility.

“We have very high standards for how our locations look and want them to be attractive and safe,” she said. “Those things are important to us as a company.”

McSween said that from the time the law passed through mid-December, there were 141 requests to cut vegetation. Five were from businesses that wanted to clear land to allow more sign visibility.

McSween said he worries about businesses wanting to cut trees because the law allows them to clear up to 1,000 feet along the right of way of state roads, whereas for billboards, 290 feet can be cleared along the edge of the road.

“The noise level has gone up dramatically,” said Leigh Armistead, who lives with his wife in a home on Summit Avenue. “We have a patio, and we like to sit out on our patio at night and have dinner and drinks, but now we can’t enjoy it as much.”

Mullen said Wesley Heights has been working with the city in recent years to revitalize the neighborhood and that it received a grant a couple of years ago to plant 50 new trees.

“We have … a vested interest in the beautification of the neighborhood,” she said.

Clearing trees for the billboard didn’t help those efforts, she said.

“It’s just very unsightly. It looks like a big old scar,” Mullen said.

Armistead said he’s talked to the state and has asked about the possibility of a noise wall, but building them is costly and currently not factored into the budget.

“This is not one of these not-in-my-backyard type of things,” he said. “We moved here with this stupid thing (the billboard) in my backyard, but all of a sudden, it’s worse with this state law.”

Ruebens: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @lruebens
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