Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s recent plan to remove 17 live oak trees along Royal and Government streets downtown — to address an issue years in the making — threatens to uproot his tenuous relationship with the city’s Tree Commission.
The administration’s request to remove the trees was less an application than a demand when it came in front of the Tree Commission for a vote late last month, Commissioner Jesse McDaniel said.
“They came to the meeting … and it was brought to us as an acknowledgement of certification, not an application,” McDaniel said. “We’re supposed to vote on it. A public body cannot take an action unless they vote. We didn’t vote on anything.”While McDaniel questioned the legality of such an action, the state law that created the commission allows for the mayor to unilaterally remove or trim trees in the public right of way in order to prevent a “public hazard, or to provide efficient and economical service to the public.”
In a June 13 letter to the Tree Commission, Stimpson used those exceptions to illustrate the need to remove the trees to “protect the safety of those using the sidewalk and to protect the efficient and economical operation of critical infrastructure from further tree damage.”
In the letter, the administration argues the trees are undermining the sidewalks and pose a risk to utilities and the foundation of the History Museum of Mobile.
McDaniel said he fears Stimpson could use this exception to cut down all the live oaks on Government Street downtown because all live oaks “are causing infrastructure problems.”
Commissioner Dr. Rip Pfeiffer agrees, predicting the oak trees around Government Plaza and Dauphin Street will be next to go.
It’s the first time in his 25 years on the commission a mayor has used the exceptions to “circumvent” them, Pfeiffer said.
“No previous mayor has evoked this rule,” he said.
This action by Stimpson brings to a close a years-long battle between the Tree Commission and the History Museum of Mobile over the removal of those trees. Former commission Chairman Tom McGehee said the museum, under then-director David Alsobrook, three times came to the commission seeking removal of the trees because they negatively impacted visibility of the museum building and its flagpole.
“And I said we don’t grant tree removals for visibility, or we’d have every gas station, every commercial building say they can’t see my building because that live oak … and we’d have to let them cut the tree down,” McGehee said he told Alsobrook.
McGehee said Stimpson asked for a lunch meeting with the commission at the museum in 2014, shortly after he was elected. At that meeting, McGehee said the mayor asked commissioners why they had decided to plant the trees in front of the museum and behind the Civic Center, for example. McGehee said he explained to Stimpson that they didn’t plant the trees, that they had been there since the 1970s.
“It became clear he had not asked to see any of the paperwork, the rule book or anything else,” McGehee said.
The Tree Commission was established in 1961 and is the “envy” of other cities in the state, McGehee said.
“We have the best-protected trees in the entire state of Alabama and they’ve come more times to us asking how we did it,” McGhee said. “All these towns want to copy what we do. I mean, we’re doing it right. I don’t think it needs to be changed. I think people need to be educated.”
It’s not completely unheard of for the Tree Commission to approve the removal of healthy trees on city rights of way or in historic districts, but typically an applicant is required to either make a two-for-one donation to the city’s tree bank or replant two trees at another location, McGehee said.
“So, even though we lost a tree here, we got another tree put back and another tree in another part of town,” McGehee said.
McDaniel said the city failed to make any guarantees it would replant trees or donate to the tree bank.
“We’re not going to approve any more removals from the right-of-way until there’s a commitment from the city to plant two-for-one somewhere else,” Pfeiffer said. “There have been no commitments from the mayor’s office to plant any overstory trees.”
Pfeiffer added the trees downtown provide more than just beauty, they reduce the urban heat effect, which can be three to five degrees warmer without them; reduce stormwater surge; and increase property values.
City spokesman George Talbot said the administration has enlisted Historic Development Commission Director Cart Blackwell and a team to come up with a list of trees that are appropriate for planting downtown and in other areas of the city.
While McGehee said the city would be looking to take down the live oaks along Water Street, Talbot said the removal of those trees is required by the Alabama Department of Transportation, as changes to the on-ramp there move forward.
As for trees to replace the oaks along the corridor, Talbot said the administration has not yet made a decision.