Green Guide

Residents fought to preserve chopped down oak trees

Posted September 4

— The gnarled live oak tree had stood for close to 200 years, Brent James figures - through hurricanes, nor'easters and whatever else nature could bring.

It came down along with 7 acres of its neighbors to make way for a development of 40 homes south of East Ocean View Avenue.

The houses aren't news. The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority announced the plans in 2014.

But the clear-cutting of old trees that residents had fought for years to preserve came as a surprise to some, including City Councilman Tommy Smigiel.

James, a naturalist who specializes in large trees, was driving home Thursday evening and came across the tail end of the process.

"They were just tearing the trees to pieces," he said. "It was like a battlefield. It just looked terrible."

Jennifer White Moore, a spokeswoman for the Housing Authority, said plans that included removing the trees were approved by the city and disclosed to residents.

"I know that we did some meetings with the civic leagues out there, and we mentioned the trees coming down," Moore said. "Until it becomes a reality, I guess perhaps it doesn't really sink in."

She said the land needs to be regraded before houses are built, and there was no way to do that or put in water, stormwater and sewer lines with the trees and their roots remaining. In addition, Moore said, some of the trees were "blighted" and needed to come down anyway.

About 100 new trees will be planted in the open spaces of the development, Moore said.

The land where the new homes will go is between 5th Bay and 7th Bay streets. To the west, between 3rd Bay and 5th Bay, sits what's now Bay Oaks Park.

Over a decade ago, residents went to court to try to preserve the entire area of about 21 acres and create a new park. The latter effort was a success, but in a 2008 compromise, part of the land was set aside for new housing.

The problem, James said, is that the oldest, most majestic trees were slated for development.

Smigiel, who represents the area, said he didn't know the live oaks were going to come down because the site plans did not require council approval.

"I have spoken with NRHA and because of flooding requirements a lot of fill has to be placed and would have killed the trees," he said in a text message. "The East Ocean View Community is excited however about the redevelopment project with 40 new homes and the creation of Bay Oaks Park on 3rd-5th Bay."

Smigiel said he was saddened to see the trees come down but glad that hundreds of others have been preserved. Moore said the 11-acre park will include trails, playgrounds and picnic shelters, with most amenities being installed by the end of 2017.

Smigiel was first elected in 2010, when he ousted incumbent W. Randy Wright in a campaign that focused in part on the trees. Smigiel was a member of the group fighting to establish a park and protect the 21-acre area, while Wright opposed the creation of Bay Oaks Park.

Construction of the homes is scheduled to begin in spring 2018 and finish in spring or summer 2019, Moore said. They will sell for $360,000 and up. Cutting down the trees was among the first steps to prepare for construction.

When James saw what was happening, he stopped his car and stayed at the site for more than two hours.

His eye was drawn to the remains of the 200-year-old tree, which he remembered climbing as a 5-year-old boy, 60 years ago. James said the tree was about 20 feet around - an unusual size for live oaks, which grow very slowly.

"I just cannot imagine anyone going out there and looking at the majesty of those live oaks and saying, 'OK, just take all these down,' " he said, adding later, "If I'd have known about it, I'd have chained myself to the tree."

Moore said the decision was not made lightly.

"We totally understand the fact these are beautiful trees that have been around for a while," she said.

While James watched workers cut up the trees, a pair of great blue herons flew up and landed on the branches of the tree he climbed as a boy. They're normally quiet birds, he said, but the female started squawking loudly - perhaps upset by its habitat being disturbed.

"It sounded like somebody crying," James said.

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