Loss of Mature Trees in Derita Raises Concerns and Sparks Debate

2023-10-17 09:30:00

Carl Flowe’s father planted two oak trees at the end of his driveway on West Sugar Creek Road about 50 years ago. They weren’t anything special to look at, Flowe admits, but over the years they stretched and grew until the leafy branches shielded his home from the sun and the traffic that whizzed by on the busy road just north of Interstate 85.

A couple weeks ago, contractors chopped them down — along with two other trees on his property, and 22 trees in total along a two-block stretch in Derita — to make way for a new water line to be installed by Charlotte Water.

He and his neighbors were compensated for the loss of the trees and the parcel of their property needed to install the water line that will deliver increased water pressure to the Hidden Valley neighborhood on the other side of the freeway. But Flowe said he also didn’t feel like he had much choice but to accept the offer to cut down his trees and dig up his property.

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“The city is going to do what it has to do,” Flowe said last week, shrugging.

On the edge of one of Charlotte’s Corridors of Opportunity, as the city describes six “underinvested areas” it is working to grow, some Derita residents expressed concern that trees decades old were discarded without anyone having an opportunity to fight to keep them. As the final tree was cut down last week, it exposed the difficulties in coordinating work between state- and city-run organizations, along with a disconnect in communication with and between neighborhoods.

And, Flowe said, a bias against preserving some areas of Charlotte.

“I’ve been in this town a long time and I know how the politics work,” Flowe said. “Maybe if we were on the south side they could have figured out a way to save the trees.”

Crews work on cutting down an oak tree along West Sugar Creek Road on Oct. 12. It was the last of 22 mature trees that were cut down on a two-block stretch in Derita. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez [email protected]

22 mature trees cut down

Thomas Templeton noticed 22 mature trees in his Derita neighborhood had numbers spray-painted on their trunks a few weeks ago, after he returned home from a trip. The former neighborhood association president of the Royal Oaks community in Derita has lived in the area for 59 years, and after a bit of investigating, he learned about the plan to cut down the trees between Princess Street and Flowes Drive on the west side of West Sugar Creek Road.

A map details where Hidden Valley Water System Improvement projects will take place. Charlotte Water

He said every proposal he’d seen until then related to the Hidden Valley Water Systems Improvement project showed a water line running down the middle of the road — not through properties. He also says, though, that the maps he saw might not have had precise renderings of the water line placement.

Templeton brought up his concerns in a Suffering Matters neighborhood meeting Oct. 5, wondering aloud who made the decision and who fought for the neighborhood trees.

“I don’t understand how we’re taking down trees and destroying a streetscape,” he said in the meeting. “It will totally change what this (area) looks like, and eliminate, of course, the very thing that the city, every time they open their mouths, they say we want to preserve — tree canopy. Well, here’s one of their projects, wiping out tree canopy.

“It’s so hypocritical. And that’s the thing that angers me the most.”

A view of a row of trees along West Sugar Creek Road just before the were cut down to make room for a new water line to be installed. Courtesy of Thomas Templeton

Charlotte Water vs. NCDOT

Charlotte Water, though, says it had no choice. It originally planned for the water line to be installed beneath West Sugar Creek Road. But the road is maintained by NCDOT, not the city, and Charlotte Water had to get permission.

NCDOT denied the request to install the water line beneath the road in April 2021, and in a statement to The Charlotte Observer, spokesperson Jen Thompson said installing it on private property would be “less impactful,” according to the acting district engineer.

“Sugar Creek Road is a heavily traveled artery, and the department would have had to take on future maintenance,” the statement read. “Installation at the back of (the) curb was not possible due to the presence of underground utilities.

“The new water line was also more than 900 feet. It would take considerable time to open a trench and shift traffic around the work area. The trench depth would have been more than 10 feet in some locations, and there would not have been enough separation between live traffic going by the work area to install the water line.”

Charlotte Water spokesperson Ajonelle Poole said they investigated installing the water line on the east side of the street, but “this did not prove viable as the homes are closer to the roadway, the trees are larger and there are existing water and underground utilities in the way.”

Left with no other option, Poole said, they contacted property owners on the west side of the road beginning in May 2021. All 11 agreed to tree removal.

“It didn’t matter to me, as long as they cleaned up afterwards,” said Miles Boyd, who had one tree removed from his West Sugar Creek Road property. He added that his wife negotiated a price for the tree removal, and he just saw a sum he declined to specify appear in his bank account.

Piles of dirt and wood chips lie in spaces where mature oak trees once stood on West Sugar Creek Road as people walk by. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez [email protected]

Hidden Valley and Derita

Charlotte Water, for its part, said it has kept Hidden Valley residents informed of the project since a neighborhood association meeting in May 2022.

It sent out mailers to Hidden Valley residents on three occasions, from December 2021 to February 2023; presented at the Hidden Valley Community Association Meeting three different times in 2022 and 2023; and held public meetings in August 2021 and June 2023.

But apart from direct communication with property owners in May 2021 about the need to remove trees and dig up their property, that outreach has happened in Hidden Valley.

The two impacted blocks where the trees needed to be removed are in Derita — on the other side of I-85.

It is the only part of the project taking place outside of Hidden Valley.

And that’s exactly what Templeton says is the problem — he and his Derita neighbors weren’t updated.

“And I guess that’s part of my frustration with Charlotte Water,” Templeton said. “If I had known that that was a problem years ago, I would have started making noise back then.”

Theresa McDonald, who leads the Derita Matters community group, said she and her neighbors understand that the project, as a whole, is necessary.

“It is for a larger good, we understand that,” she said. “This project, itself, has probably been delayed for years — as has so much been delayed in the Derita community and Hidden Valley and everywhere along the Sugar Creek corridor. They’re trying to make up for some lost time and neglect, and lack of investment and public dollars coming this way.”

A part of one tree that was cut down rests in the front yard of a house on West Sugar Creek Road. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez [email protected]

‘They’re gone. It’s history now.’

Last Thursday, the final tree at the corner of Princess Street and West Sugar Creek Road was cut down. It towered at least 40 feet high before its limbs were shorn one by one. Most of the trees, neighbors said, were likely 40-60 years old. A massive pile of more than 20 logs — each as long as pick-up trucks and some as large as 3 feet in diameter — sits at the corner of Flowes Drive, awaiting removal.

“The growth of decades — gone in two weeks,” Templeton said as he stood beside them.

Templeton said he knows there’s nothing that can be done now, but he wants everyone involved in the decision — city officials, Charlotte Water, NCDOT — to learn from this.

“If such a project happens again, if you’re even thinking about cutting down a whole bunch of trees, let’s stop for a minute and let’s really emphasize that’s a big deal,” he said. “Maybe other people are like, ‘Oh, they’re just trees.’ But to me, you’ve got elected officials and some other officials in the city going, ‘We want to preserve tree canopy!’

“Well, here is a major department of the city doing exactly the opposite.”

City Council member Renee Johnson, whose district includes the Derita area, referred questions to state representatives because the road is maintained by NCDOT. N.C. Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed, who represents the area, did not respond to a request for comment.

At-large Charlotte City Council member Dimple Ajmera calls herself “a big advocate for our tree canopy and moving away from fossil fuels.” But in this case, she says, all other options were explored before landing on the unfortunate necessity of removing 22 mature trees.

“The important message here is that the Hidden Valley neighborhood has waited far too long for this infrastructure project to be delivered — that we’re delivering on,” she said. “This project has been in the pipeline for many years, so to be able to deliver this is really huge.

“We try hard to be good stewards for our public infrastructure while being good stewards of our environment,” she continued. “We’ve got to balance it. And … here we are.”

From Carl Flowe’s front yard, he can see the pile of felled trees. They’re resting on property that his family once owned, back when his great-grandparents had a 120-acre farm that stretched across much of the Sugar Creek and Derita areas.

“They’re gone. It’s history now,” Flowe said of the trees. “What can you do? I’m not bitter. I don’t like change, but I’m not bitter.”

He has already planted a couple dogwoods to fill in some of the empty spaces closer to his home. And as soon as the city allows it, Flowe plans to add a fence and plant new trees, as close to the road as he can. It’ll take some time for them to grow as large as the two old oaks he lost, but he knows they’ll flourish.

“One day, they’ll take over,” he said.

“The growth of decades gone in two weeks,” says Thomas Templeton, a Derita resident. Twenty-two mature oak trees on a two-block stretch of West Sugar Creek Road were cut down to make way for a new water line to be installed that will benefit residents of the Hidden Valley neighborhood. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez [email protected]

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