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Nightmare for Elm: Healthy, But Facing Death

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Treegate, Episode 3: Enter the Arborist.

A city tree expert recommended March 2 that a controversial American elm tree in the Fan District was healthy and should not be removed, contrary to the wishes of a nearby resident and his city councilman, according to documents obtained by Style Weekly through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The city-owned tree, in the 100 block of Plum Street near Floyd Avenue, is arguably destructive but not dying.

Second District Councilman Charles Samuels proposed an ordinance in early March to remove the tree with city money, bypassing the city-wide moratorium on tree removal. Some nearby residents are against the tree's removal — it's massive and shady, and part of the distinctly Fan aesthetic — and showed up to protest Samuel's ordinance before City Council on March 22.

Samuels and David Robinson, whose house stands adjacent to the tree, say the tree's roots have infiltrated the structure's foundation and pose a serious trip liability to pedestrians. Robinson's side patio and backyard fence are visibly lifted by the tree's roots. It's damaging his property, he says.

Richmond's municipal tree policy, adopted in 1992, says that a resident wanting a tree to be removed contrary to the recommendation of a city arborist must pay for the removal. City documents show that city arborist Luke McCall rated the tree an eight out of 12 on a tree-hazard scale, but concluded that the tree was healthy and should not be removed, “pending further investigation.”

E-mails obtained by Style also indicate that Robinson previously, and apparently successfully, halted the opening of a new tree well on the corner of Plum and Floyd in front of his house. The new tree well had been requested by another resident and initially approved by city officials.

“About a year and a half ago — after I complained endlessly to the City Attorney's office about dangerous conditions at the intersection of Plum and Floyd — a new sidewalk was put in both in front (Floyd) and along the side of my house (Plum),” Robinson wrote in a December e-mail to city officials. “My sidewalk is beautiful,” he wrote. “It is like a plaza.”

Robinson went on to list 11 reasons why he opposed the new tree well in front of his house, including his purchase of a new tree to be planted in an empty tree well farther down Plum. “Why cannot trees be planted in existing empty tree wells first before making new ones?” he wrote. “How can someone else have more of a say about my property than I?”

The sidewalk is owned by the city.

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