University City

University City loses century-old oaks for high-speed rail

Massive oaks along Old Concord Road – some more than a century old and topping 7 feet in diameter – have been cut down to make way for the high-speed rail corridor linking Charlotte with Washington, D.C.

“My great-grandfather planted those trees, and they grew there for more than 100 years,” said Joe Ferguson, who grew up in the shade of the oaks. “Then they came in with their machines, and in 10 minutes, they were down.”

Ferguson, in his 70s, lives on one of the last working farms in the University City area, on Old Concord Road near Branch Hill Circle. His sister, Cinda Helms, lives next door.

The land has been in their family for five generations. Ferguson’s herd of cattle, including exotic-looking Brahmans and Texas Longhorns, has long delighted schoolchildren and other residents.

For the two lifelong Newell residents, the painful process is not yet over. Additional venerable trees are slated for destruction in coming days, including two in front of Ferguson’s house.

Ferguson and Helms first learned about the high-speed rail project in January 2010 at a public meeting at University Meadows school. The local segment of the project will add a second set of tracks and close railroad grade crossings, replacing them with bridges, along a 12-mile stretch from Orr Road in University City northeast to Harrisburg.

The crowd at the meeting was so large that lines formed outside the building. In the months after it, Ferguson and Helms tried to stay informed.

“It was frustrating. The plans change day-to-day, week-to-week. Nobody can give you a definite answer,” Ferguson said. “But we knew something was coming. At one meeting, they told us, ‘It’s a done deal.’ ”

According to the N.C. Department of Transportation, crossings at Orr Road and Newell-Hickory Grove Road will be closed. They will be replaced by a railroad bridge arching 25 feet over the tracks that links Grier Road with Old Concord Road, according to N.C. DOT’s Jahmal Pullen.

The location is directly across from Ferguson’s farm. The aged trees have been removed to make way for the bridge, as well as a new intersection and stoplight at Grier and Old Concord roads.

In addition, Old Concord Road must be raised to a maximum of about 50 feet higher than its current level in order to connect properly to the bridge, Pullen said. The new road segment will have sidewalks on both sides, as well as a 12-foot-wide walking and biking trail.

The roadway will be built up using fill soil, creating a steep embankment that will stop just a few feet from the front doors of Ferguson’s and Helms’ homes – burying the front parts of the farm, including driveways. A new entrance to the farm will be constructed on Branch Hill Circle.

The Old Concord Road entrance to Lauren Village will also be blocked by the regrading. The small housing development will then be accessed via a new entrance on Farmfield Lane. Three homes have been demolished to make way for the additional road, including one recently-built home that was never occupied.

N.C. DOT officials caution residents that Old Concord Road will be closed to through traffic between Farmfield and Orr Road for several months before the project’s scheduled conclusion, now projected for mid-2015.

Currently, industrial warehouses that face Orr Road along the tracks are no longer screened from view. With that and the rubble from the demolished homes and splintered tree trunks, the once-familiar rural landscape is now unrecognizable.

After months of relative quiet and ongoing negotiations with a contractor hired to handle right-of-way claims, Ferguson was told in January that the case had been referred to the N.C. Attorney General’s office.

In February, a sheriff’s deputy served the brother and sister with condemnation papers for their land; crews arrived days later to begin taking down trees and clearing the area. Ferguson and Helms are considering legal action.

A representative of HDR, the company handling the right-of-way process, disputes Ferguson and Helms’ version of events, maintaining that the firm followed proper procedures.

Ferguson has spent decades on the land caring for cattle, and he also created a landscaping business as the city grew up around him.

His younger sister, an award-winning equestrian who trains and shows American Quarter horses, took over her husband’s drywall business after he died.

“The biggest problem is in the way it’s been handled,” Ferguson said. “All we wanted was to be treated fairly. Instead, they decided to condemn our land. We would be happy to work things out, but we don’t need the heartaches and the sleepless nights. We can’t help worrying about it.”

Nearby residents express sympathy for Ferguson and dismay at the tree removal. One neighbor confronted crews sent to take down the trees. Some are also concerned that the road will be built over a wetlands area, destroying the habitat and possibly making the roadway unstable.