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The willow oaks of Charlotte’s older neighborhoods are reaching the end of their long lives

The century-old green canopy that graces Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods is tottering, changing the fabric of an urban forest that can turn hazardous when trees fall.

The stately willow oaks and other trees planted in then-new suburbs such as Myers Park, Dilworth and Elizabeth are now granddaddies, and many are feeble ones.

More than half the city-maintained trees lining streets in the older neighborhoods near uptown are in only middling health, an Observer analysis of city data found.

Of the 35,000 street trees in those neighborhoods, 56 percent are rated in fair condition. Those trees might have dead branches or cavities but aren’t considered hazardous. About 4 percent are dead or in poor health. The remainder are in good or excellent shape.

Even within the close-in areas, the data show, conditions widely vary.

Neighborhoods south of uptown such as Dilworth and parts of Myers Park have some of the highest concentrations of healthy street trees. Those to the east, Elizabeth and Belmont, have a higher proportion of dead or sick trees than neighboring communities.

In Chantilly, between Independence Boulevard and East Seventh Street, only 12 percent of the street trees are in good or excellent health. It’s not clear why, but street life is hard on trees.

Pavement hems them, forcing trees to compete with lawns for water and nutrients. Curbs and trenches for utility lines damage roots. Droughts and fall invasions of cankerworms, which eat willow oak leaves, take a toll.

The results can be disastrous.

A Myers Park woman was walking down her driveway, carrying her 9-month-old daughter, as a storm blew in last July. A willow oak limb snapped. The 50-pound limb fractured her daughter’s skull.

The child recovered, but the 90-year-old tree will be cut down next month. Her mother said she looks at the neighborhood’s towering canopy differently now.

“I don’t even take my kids out walking,” she said. “You see those trees laying across Queens Road all the time.”

The city 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.

The city street-tree data can’t reveal whether their overall condition is growing worse. Nor does it describe those on private property, where some homeowners take good care of their trees and others don’t.

But city arborist Don McSween says time isn’t on the side of the old ones.

“It’s the factor of age,” he said. The longer a tree lives, the more likely it is to suffer damage, such as the 2002 ice storm that snapped branches and invited decay.

Education

Some venerable neighborhoods are stepping up to protect life and limb. Homeowners are working to preserve shaded corridors, replant trees and educate their neighbors: Like houses or cars, trees need regular maintenance.

On a raw morning earlier this month, retired consulting arborist Jack McNeary prodded a basketball-sized fungus growing beneath a big willow oak in Freedom Park.

“Two years ago this was a little, teeny mushroom at the base of the tree,” said McNeary, who lives in Myers Park. “It’s all very subtle.”

It also doomed the tree, a victim of root rot that destroyed its anchor in the ground and sent decay gnawing at its insides. Wind or storms could snap a thick branch or uproot the whole tree. An orange band around its three-foot diameter marked it for removal.

Next month McNeary will teach homeowners in Myers Park and other neighborhoods how to spot potential tree problems. He readily found examples in a quick tour of Dilworth.

Driveways intruded on the root space of towering oaks. Decay had set in where limbs were poorly pruned. Too-long branches overhung rooftops and power lines. And more mushrooms clung to tree trunks.

“I’m worried that a tree is going to come down in somebody’s yard, or that someone else will get killed,” McNeary said. “It’s serious, and I think we’re going to have more extreme weather, more wind, more storms.”

Neighborhood efforts

Hurricane Hugo, which tore through Charlotte in 1989, ravaged the old oaks in the Elizabeth neighborhood. Particularly hard hit was Greenway Avenue, which then was Ric Solow’s street.

“It was an amazingly beautiful, tree-lined street,” said Solow, a landscape architect. “It lost a mind-boggling amount.”

Solow’s wife, Kris, began an effort to renew the neighborhood’s leafy heritage a decade ago. At her urging, the Elizabeth Community Association won a matching grant from the city that planted 220 trees in street medians.

Ric Solow leads a separate effort, which began on Greenway Avenue, to replant trees on private property. The community association subsidizes homeowner’s costs of trees, most of which are varieties of maple or elm.

“People were really gun-shy about oaks,” he said. “I think it’s the fact that’s that what they see coming down, see falling.”

The willow oak, a hardy type that tolerates the abuses of urban life, is the City of Trees’ signature species.

The old oaks are “a huge selling point,” said Sadler Barnhardt, a real estate executive and president of the Myers Park Homeowners Association. “When we take people around Myers Park or take people around from out of town, they just go ga-ga.”

Still, there’s a problem with so many willow oaks. Because most were planted between 1895 to 1923, they’re also aging out together. The concentration of willow oaks might also account for the annual onslaught of cankerworms.

“It’s one of the major challenges of Charlotte’s tree canopy,” said Dave Cable, executive director of the public-private planting initiative TreesCharlotte. “We are way over-invested in willow oaks.”

Hallowed corridors

TreesCharlotte’s volunteers plant 50 species, and the city typically uses a diversity of trees when replacing street trees.

But in some hallowed corridors – Queens Road West, Dilworth Road East and West and parts of East Boulevard – willow oaks are replaced by more willow oaks.

When the Dilworth Community Development Association saw that the neighborhood’s old street trees were dying and not being replaced, it banded with other neighborhoods. In 2011 they won an extra $200,000 in replanting money from Charlotte City Council.

The association also developed a master plan that specifies the species of replacement trees for each streets, with an eye to maintaining the neighborhood’s dappled character.

“Street trees are the visible face of the tree canopy that we live with in a lot of ways,” said landscape architect Debra Glennon, a former member of the Dilworth and city tree boards. “That’s where people and trees meet up on a daily basis.”

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.

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