York's downtown trees present costly dilemma

Some of the red maple trees on North Congress Street in downtown York have been marked with yellow ribbon for removal.
Some of the red maple trees on North Congress Street in downtown York have been marked with yellow ribbon for removal.

Maples crack sidewalks, obscure businesses

YORK -- Cracking sidewalks, constricted sewer lines and obscured storefronts were not the results city leaders expected when they created a plan to beautify York's downtown area.

But that's what happened.

Chinks in York's $45,000 master plan to improve the appearance of its downtown were exposed when the roots of trees associated with the project grew and caused cracks in city sidewalks. In addition, the S.C. Forestry Commission has discovered decay in several of the trees.

City leaders said they have decided to remove five of the maple trees this month, and possibly as many as seven next year.

"We need to take five down immediately," interim city manager Charles Helms said. "Because of decay, there is a threat of the trees falling on people."

The commission has been studying what to do about the red maples that are plaguing the downtown walkways. It's also looking at the city's options if leaders decide to replace the maples with other trees.

The city is focusing on 19 trees in the downtown area.

Jimmy Walters, the regional urban forester with the S.C. Forestry Commission, said the problem began before the trees were even planted.

"Red maple is a poor choice for this application," he said. "They have a really large root structures in a location where restricted space and pavement are factors."

Walters said the tree's roots tend to grow aggressively in search of air in the soil. When there's not enough space or soil, as is the case in downtown York, they will grow in the space between soil and pavement, or invade storm water and sewer lines.

"The trees are gradually choking themselves to death," Walters said.

Crape myrtle 'best' alternative

If the city decides to replace the trees, smaller trees should be considered, Walters said.

"Crape myrtles, which are currently in use in York, are probably the best choice," Walters said. "They are doing really well."

Many business owners are glad to hear the city is taking action.

"They definitely need to come down. They're overgrown, and they block the view of the businesses," said Linda Lennert, proprietor of Jasmine Café and Gifts on North Congress Street. "Customers have said they've circled the block three or four times trying to read the signs."

Lennert said smaller trees would be a much better choice for the downtown area.

Jim Dickerson, chairman of the Downtown Business Association and owner of Dickerson Motor Co., said the sidewalk cracks show the beautification project didn't go as planned.

"These maple trees were not supposed to get 30 feet tall," he said. "Apparently, this master plan wasn't too masterful when it got down to the trees."

Bryan Milem, owner of the Cotton Gin Tavern on North Congress Street, said the trees shouldn't have been planted in the first place.

"I'd like to know why this wasn't figured out when the city paid to put them up," Milem said. "Now we're paying to take them down."

But Mayor Eddie Lee said he wants the city to proceed with caution.

"We are seeing five decayed trees that need to be removed," Lee said. "It may not be the right thing to just cut them all down ... that may be disastrous for downtown's appearance."

Helms said city leaders will meet with the tree commission and the historical commission before making any decisions on a date or contracts for the tree removal.