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Falling tree crushes car near uptown Charlotte

Charlotte’s aging street trees near uptown took another victim Thursday when a tall maple fell as wind gusts whipped the city, crushing a car stopped in traffic.

The driver was taken to Carolinas Medical Center with injuries that weren’t considered life-threatening, police said. Officers closed the blocks of Seventh Street near Ridgeway Avenue in the Elizabeth neighborhood, where the tree fell on the 2004 Ford Taurus.

Many trees planted decades ago in close-in neighborhoods such as Elizabeth, Myers Park and Dilworth are reaching the end of their lives, the Observer reported last month.

More than half the streetside trees in those old neighborhoods are in fair condition, according to a city database. The rating means the trees might have dead branches or cavities but aren’t considered hazardous.

Old age and the stress of city life leave the trees susceptible to disease and storms, arborists say. The National Weather Service clocked 33 mph winds in Charlotte shortly after Thursday’s accident.

Driver Diane Copeland, 59, was headed toward uptown during heavy afternoon traffic when the tree fell, police said. Vehicles ahead of her had stopped as drivers waited to turn left at the next intersection.

“She was backed up in traffic and nowhere to go,” said Officer L.M. Lowery.

A witness told police she saw big branches fall before the tree itself toppled diagonally across Copeland’s car. The tree, a snagged power line and the car remained in the street more than an hour after the 5:30 p.m. incident.

Copeland’s condition was unclear Thursday night.

The tree was a 60-foot red maple that was rated in fair condition, according to the city database. Elizabeth has some of the center-city area’s lowest percentage of healthy street trees, the Observer analysis found.

About 22 percent of the neighborhood’s trees are in good or excellent health. On average, about 40 percent of the trees in the historic center-city neighborhoods are healthy.

Of the nearly 2,000 street trees within a half mile of the downed one, 74 percent are rated in fair condition. About 6 percent are dead or in poor health. The remainder are in good or excellent shape.

Charlotte agreed to pay $5 million in 2005 to settle a lawsuit over a tree that fell from private property and hit a passing driver on East Boulevard, leaving the man a quadriplegic.

The city paid $975,000 in the 2008 death of a woman whose vehicle was hit by a falling street tree, also on East Boulevard.

Charlotte officials have flagged about 90 trees in Elizabeth for removal, the analysis showed.

Oswin Sutton, who lives in an apartment across Seventh Street from the accident, said city crews had chalked a rectangular outline around another large tree just up the block, apparently marking it for removal, two weeks ago.

“Those people were damn lucky,” he said. “We’re supposed to have 50 mph gusts tonight, and before they were 30 mph and it blew that tree over. So 50 mph, that tree’s going to blow over tonight too.”

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