ROCKINGHAM — Common occurrences sometimes have uncommon consequences.
When the city of Rockingham went to do routine improvements to Scales Street on June 8, 2012, it came at the expense of an oak tree that had grown between six and eight inches out into the city’s right-of-way for the sidewalk.
Property owner Beverly Crouse says the city cut into the roots of the tree — which was at least 90 years old — removing the part that was overgrown and went ahead with their work on the sidewalk. Five years later, the tree is dead and has become a danger to tenants — one limb already having fallen off, causing $350 in damage to the house on the property, and others limbs look threatening.
Crouse, who has been disabled since a car accident in Feb. 2012 and is already struggling with mounting medical bills relating to diabetes and an auto-immune disease, among others ailments, has had to pay for the removal the tree.
Removal would have cost between $3,500 and $5,000 were it not for Crouse calling in a favor to get the cost taken down to $2,400. Most companies were nervous about taking on the job because of the tree’s size and perilous proximity to power lines and homes, according to Crouse.
Crouse sought the opinion of Matt Gordon, county ranger with the N.C. Forest Service, earlier this month on what caused the death of the tree. Gordon acknowledged that the tree had encroached on the city’s right-of-way but he saw no signs of anything that could have killed the tree other than the city’s chainsaw.
“Do I believe that (the city) was the reason (the tree) went in to decline? Yes I believe it was,” Gordon said.
The city has denied responsibility for the tree, maintaining that it sits on Crouse’s property so regardless of what killed the tree, she has to cover the cost of removal. City Manager Monty Crump said he has “no idea” what killed the tree.
“To me, it’s pretty clear,” he said. “We have a right to replace curbs and sidewalks on city property. Do we talk to everybody before we do that? Of course not.”
Crouse said that she was not told about the improvements or the need to cut into the tree at the time. She also said she wasn’t aware that, should the tree die as a result of the city’s actions, she would have to cover the cost. Richard Haugen, city public works director who was called to the house when Crouse tried to stop the men from cutting the tree, declined to comment for this story.
“The courtesy of letting me know would have at least softened the blow,” Crouse said.
Crouse reached out to Joe Morris — who served as city planner for Salisbury from 2009 to 2013 with more than 30 years of experience in local governments, who also has a (now-lapsed) certification from the International Society of Arboriculture and a degree in horticulture — for advice on what she should do about the tree.
Morris said he agreed with Gordon’s assessment that “that kind of injury” could kill the tree.
“Assuming the tree was in reasonable health prior to the sidewalk construction, the cutting of the roots and extent of damage to the bark on the buttress roots could potentially be lethal to even the most vigorous tree,” Morris said in an email to Crouse. “At a minimum, it is reasonable to suggest that a municipal employee should have contacted the property owner prior the construction project.
“An opportunity for good customer service was missed when the work proceeded without consultation.”
Morris said in an interview that based on legal precedent in dealing with “boundary trees” that fall on property lines, and in dealing with issues that government forestry services have when they accidentally cut down trees that fall on private land, he thinks the city is liable. He added that the city has “no authority to destroy private property” in order to do construction on public property.
“If (the city) killed the tree, I think the city is responsible for the removal of the tree,” Morris said.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674.