“The city broke its promise”: once again, tree preservation becomes a hot topic in Mobile

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Bill Boswell thought he made a deal with the city three years ago that went something like this: If any of the live oak trees along Broad Street are removed, they must be replaced with a similar tree in its place.

Boswell’s non-profit group, the Government Street Collective (GSC), would also be kept informed whenever the city needed to cut down one of its trees.

However, the recent removal of three oak trees along Broad Street near Government Street has angered Boswell and other residents of this tree-loving town.

In Mobile, the living oak tree is considered an unofficial symbol of the city.

“The city broke its promise,” said Boswell, whose organization played a role in updating the city’s tree protection ordinance in early 2021. . I witnessed the destruction of trees. It’s sad, and excuse the French, it pissed us off.

James Barber, the chief of staff for Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, apologized for the miscommunication that began June 16 and culminated in the removal of trees on Friday. They were removed to support the ongoing reconstruction of Broad Street throughout downtown Mobile.

“Mobilians are passionate about their canopy of trees and their living oaks,” Barber said. “We are very aware of that. But as we do these (older) street reconstructions, we have to be aware of some cases where we cause damage to a tree, and we cannot preserve it.

He said the three trees were removed after it was discovered that the root system had been damaged as part of the Broad Street project near the government intersection. The decision was made after the trees were analyzed by three different arborists, including one who is a full-time city employee.

“It’s my responsibility to cooperate with (GSC) and try to preserve the trees,” Barber said. “But we cannot guarantee anyone that we can preserve them.”

History of the tree

Lisa Ingram of Mobile, Alabama chains herself to a live oak tree in protest of her removal from the site of the Hilton Garden Inn under construction near Bienville Square Friday, July 3, 2015, in downtown Mobile. Ingram and the police reached an agreement allowing him to vacate the property and avoid trespassing charges. (Mike Kittrell/mkittrell@al.com)

Stimpson, at the board meeting, did not speak. Barber spoke up and took the blame for the lack of communication with GSC. Boswell later Tuesday said Stimpson had agreed to meet with the GSC on July 5.

The latest tree-related skirmish continues an issue that has confounded Stimpson for much of his time as mayor.

Since at least 2015, former mayoral administrations have struggled to fight off criticism that they were insensitive to trees.

Examples include:

  • In 2015, nine live oak trees were destroyed near Place Bienville in Mobile to make way for a future hotel. Outraged residents took to social media and launched criticism. One woman even chained herself to a live oak tree in protest.
Donald Trump mobile

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Alabama. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

  • In 2016, the removal of a massive cedar tree from a city park drew national attention after it was discovered to be used as a prop at a Donald Trump rally. The former city chief of staff, who authorized the tree to be removed and placed at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and decorated with Christmas decorations, resigned shortly afterwards.
  • In 2019, outraged residents pushed back against the city’s plan to remove 60 live oak trees along Broad Street as part of a $22 million project funded largely by a federal grant.

The 2019 incident led to compromises, as well as applause from activists like Boswell. In March 2019, the CGC met with Stimpson and his staff to reach an agreement to protect 87 trees along Broad Street.

Said Boswell, “We hope to reopen those lines of communication.”

“Trees at Risk”

Boswell said communication issues aside, he was surprised the city decided to remove the three trees. He said they had already been studied and were considered “viable” and could be incorporated into the design and development of the Broad Street scheme.

“This is the first indication that major trees were removed because someone didn’t look far enough into the design of the plan,” said Boswell, who blames the city for removing the trees to develop bicycle lane. He argues that the bike path could have been moved, which would have allowed the city to preserve the trees.

Barber disagrees. He said the bike lane had nothing to do with the decision to remove them.

Broad Street Mobile

Construction activity along Broad Street in downtown Mobile as pictured Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Activity resulted in the removal of two live oak trees adjacent to Government Street United Methodist Church. Activists from the non-profit group, Government Street Collaborative, are calling on the City of Mobile to be more forthcoming with them about the possibility of cutting down trees when rebuilding Broad Street. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

He also said there was no way the city could decide to preserve the trees without first analyzing their roots. This could only be done, Barber said, by digging up the road and finding out how far the tree roots extended into the pavement.

“It’s like trying to diagnose the car without opening the hood,” Barber said. “Until we do that, we don’t know what we’re dealing with underground. We don’t know until we get there.

The city spent $30,000 on what Barber described as hydraulic excavation, which involves using pressurized water to remove soil so work crews can examine a tree’s root structure without damaging the system. root.

Barber said nine trees were examined. He said that of those nine, three of them had structural roots that jutted 10 to 15 feet into the roadway.

“It would have put the trees at risk,” Barber said.

“Trust issue”

Boswell said the CGC, after learning that the three trees needed to be removed, wondered why the city didn’t have a design in place for the Broad Street project that would have preserved them.

According to the GSC’s account, the city’s director of programs and project management — Jennifer Greene — escalated GSC’s questions and concerns to city administration, including city attorney Ricardo Woods. Last Wednesday, the GSC attempted to contact Stimpson and request a meeting, but they never heard back.

On Friday, after a phone tag between Woods and Boswell, the trees were felled.

Councilman William Carroll, who represents downtown, said he took the majority of phone calls Friday from angry residents.

Carroll also said residents need to be kept informed of what is happening and that a tree replacement program needs to be put in place.

“There needs to be a solid plan in place if we ever have to destroy a tree, that we know how we will replace them with more trees for the canopy that we need,” Carroll said.

Councilman Scott Jones expressed concern that the city administration did not contact Boswell and the CGC to clarify which trees were being cut down.

“Obviously, trees are an important aspect of our city,” he said. “I know when I have visitors from out of state, the first thing they mention is ‘what a beautiful city we have because of the trees’.”

Boswell said the lack of communication throughout the process creates a “trust issue between citizens and his government.”

“During the 2019 negotiations, I must say that I was impressed with the efforts of the mayor and the administration to try to bring something good out of a bad situation,” he said. “I hope the mayor and his administration have the same kind of ability to work with us and restore that trust and that communication so that we can make sure we don’t lose these very large and important trees again.”

Jessica C. Bell