"The lack of communication with the community has been outrageous."COLUMBIA, 4/21/12 (Beat Byte) -- A move to remove several decades-old sweet gum trees on Westwood Avenue without public notice has City of Columbia arborist Chad Herwald under fire for failure to communicate and failure to consider alternative solutions.The tree-cutting controversy has been the talk of Columbia's Old Southwest neighborhood since University of Missouri English professor Frances Dickey ran headlong into City Hall's communications style last week.Without notifying neighbors, Herwald gave the order to cut down the eight trees, some of which have towered over Westwood ever since many residents can remember. Originally asked by local attorney Steve Scott to remove just three trees in front of Scott's house, Herwald added five much larger trees several houses away. Only after the controversy kicked off did neighbors know of Scott's original, much-smaller request.City Hall's communications gaffe has caused some hard feelings that are slowly being worked out, but as is often the case, after the fact, not before it.Stay of X-ecutionDickey awoke one morning to find eight trees marked with large red X's and soon learned the city was cutting them down because their roots have upended the sidewalk. City Hall owns the land between the sidewalk and the street where the trees grow, but as Dickey pointed out, the City is Us, so she took to neighborhood listservs and a quickly-drawn petition to halt the decision pending public input.But even after city manager Mike Matthes told Mayor Bob McDavid he would stop the tree cutting, Arthur Ratliff Tree Services showed up early Monday morning to chop down the marked trees. Only a phone call to Sixth Ward City Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe halted the process, granting the trees a Supreme Court-style last minute stay of X-ecution.
"The lack of communication with the community has been outrageous," Dickey noted. "The city failed to notify us about the plan to cut EIGHT mature trees; the trees were marked on Friday and the trucks arrived [to cut them down] before offices opened on Monday morning; and worst of all, the city manager responded to the mayor saying, 'We will delay the removal until it can be discussed by all interested parties,' but failed to pass the word on down the chain of command."Bent on Sweet GumsIn the 1940s, MU chemistry professor Henry Bent, later the Graduate School Dean, planted the sweet gum trees. But sweet gums are notorious for damaging adjacent streets and sidewalks, and drop layers of barbed seeds that are obnoxious to remove. How to deal with them may help formulate a wider city plan.Columbia's trees are an important resource, and neighbors don't want to see the Westwood controversy set any undesirable precedents. They've urged alternative approaches, which in other cities have proven effective. Los Angeles, Calif. has saved hundreds of thousands of mature trees, for instance, with a comprehensive tree-conservation/sidewalk restoration plan.Meanwhile, Mrs. Hoppe has requested a review of the Westwood tree plan and Dickey has invited an MU civil engineer to review the situation. She hopes to have his opinion available for a meeting on the issue Monday, April 23.