The verdict is in: Norris will cut down the historic elm tree in the Norris City Commons to prevent it from falling on someone and causing serious injury and death, City Manager Scott Hackler told City Council members Monday.
The issue was debated for more than an hour by the City Council and some of the approximately 40 residents attending the Monday night council meeting, with those who spoke from the crowd overwhelmingly supporting the decision to remove the tree.
Hackler sent the council members an email prior to the meeting that outlined three possible actions the city could take on the rotting tree, with the first option – and his choice -- being to spend $3,000 to remove it, instantly eliminating the hazard.
The second option was to spend $13,850 or more to add steel support cables to the tree, trim out some of its upper branches – the “crown” area – to reduce weight, and building a fence to keep people away from it.
That would perhaps allow the city to keep the tree an additional five years, but would still pose a threat to public safety if people ignored the fence and got too close to the tree – and it fell without warning, Hackler said.
A third option would be to spend $12,500 to build a fence, but leave the tree alone, and hope it might last another five years before it would have to be cut down.
Hackler said this option would still be expensive, but also could be even more hazardous than the second option, as the tree might be more likely to fall sooner.
In his email Monday and again at the council meeting, Hackler made it clear what his position is: that the tree must go, for safety’s sake.
“It’s a grand tree and everyone loves it being there,” he said during the meeting. “[But] This is the only path I can recommend. … I can’t tolerate that level of risk.”
Councilwoman Jill Holland Ryan, who also is a member of the city’s Tree Commission, was one of two council member to speak out against Hackler’s decision, and she was joined in her opposition by Councilman Bill Grieve and Tree Commission Chairman Charles Nicholson.
But Tree Commission member Spencer Boardman seemed to generally support removing the tree, which reports noted has hollow trunks and could be subject to falling over at any time.
“The tree is still growing,” Ryan said. “It is a beautiful tree, and I believe we should try to save it.”
Councilman Will Grinder took the opposite position, recommending that the tree be removed.
“For all of us, it has a really high historic value,” Grinder said. “If the tree was really viable, I think we could afford [the cost to try to save it].”
But Grinder, a longtime building contractor, said he had made an extensive examination of the tree on Monday afternoon and now believed that it could not be saved, and was a danger to the community.
“I couldn’t really support leaving it there,” Grinder said.
He recommended that the council make the decision rather than leaving it up to the city manager.
But Mayor Chris Mitchell made it clear to all present that the decision rested solely in Hackler’s hands because of the way the city is structured, with the city manager having complete control over operations and safety.
Council member Loretta Painter echoed Mitchell’s position, saying: “We don’t vote on this. It’s the city manager’s responsibility.”
Mitchell said he concurred with Hackler’s decision, however.
“We all love that tree,” the mayor said. “But it’s not safe. I support the decision Scott [Hackler] has made. It comes down to Scott’s decision on the safety of the people.”
The council took no action, as was expected.
“I have listened to numerous inputs regarding the Elm Tree’s future,” Hackler wrote in his Monday email. “I have received opinion that would/could support any of the three options presented. I do not believe the grand nature of the tree would be maintained with 1/3 of the canopy mass removed and a substantial barrier fence around the fall zone of the tree.
“It would be a sad ending for such a grand and historic landmark to be imprisoned and linger in a degraded state of appearance for the sake of existence for a few more years,” he said.
“I am expected to hold safety in the highest achievable standard for city operations. I will not retreat from that duty. I expect the council members and appointed board members to professionally honor the city’s commitment to safety and protection of the public as the highest priority. Anything less would be a disappointment and an unacceptable liability.”
Last month, the city’s Tree Commission voted unanimously to recommend spending $4,350 on a proposal from Cortese Tree Specialists of Knoxville for the crown reduction and replacement of steel support cables. One support cable that had been in place for several years recently broke under the weight of the tree.
The Tree Commission’s proposal was similar to Hackler’s second option, but did not include the expense of building a sturdy fence to keep people away from the tree.
City officials blocked off the area around the tree with police tape more than a year ago, after the support cable broke. The city has been worried since then that the tree might fall and hurt or kill someone.
Tree Commission Chairman Nicholson has taken the position that the tree is not dying, even though parts of the trunk have rotted out, and the arborist hired by the city warned that it is structurally deficient and could tumble down at any time.
The tree dates to the founding of Norris in the mid-1930s, and has been a prominent element in the commons area since. It’s even listed as an historic tree within the state on the website of the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council (tufc.com/project/commons-elm/).
Planted by the Tennessee Valley Authority when the town was built, the tree stands some 83 feet over the Commons.
Hackler also said Monday that he hopes pieces of the tree can be saved as mementos.
“I propose, with others, that removal of the tree can be memorialized by donation of portions to those who may creatively shape the wood into items that can be displayed and remembered for eternity,” he said in his email.
“I appreciate the passion and commitment of the citizens of Norris. That is what makes Norris, Norris.”