‘City broke its promise’: Once again, tree preservation becomes hot topic in Mobile

'City broke its promise': Once again, tree preservation becomes hot topic in Mobile

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Bill Boswell thought he had an arrangement with the city from three years ago that went something like this: If any of the live oak trees along Broad Street are removed, they are to be replaced with a similar tree in its place.

Boswell’s non-profit group, the Government Street Collaborative (GSC), would also be kept informed on whenever the city needed to tear down one of its trees.

The recent removal of three oak trees along Broad Street near Government Street, however, has Boswell and others in this tree-loving city rate.

In Mobile, the live oak tree is viewed as an unofficial symbol of the city.

“The city broke its promise,” said Boswell, whose organization played a role in the city’s updated tree protection ordinance in early 2021. “The city never contacted us. I witnessed the destruction of the trees. It’s disheartening, and excuse the French, it pissed us off.”

James Barber, the chief of staff to Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, apologized for the lack of communication that began on June 16, and culminated with the removal of the trees on Friday. They were removed to support the ongoing reconstruction of Broad Street throughout downtown Mobile.

“Mobilians are passionate about their canopy of trees and their live oaks,” Barber said. “We are very much aware of that. But as we do these rebuilds of (older) streets, we have to be mindful of some instances where we cause damage to a tree, and we cannot preserve it.”

He said the three trees were removed after it was discovered the root system was damaged as part of the Broad Street project near the intersection of Government. The decision was made after the trees were analyzed by three different arborists, including one who is a full-time city employee.

“It’s my responsibility to cooperate with (GSC) and try to preserve trees,” Barber said. “But we cannot assure anyone that we can preserve them.”


Lisa Ingram of Mobile, Ala., chains herself to a live oak to protest its removal from the site of the Hilton Garden Inn under construction near Bienville Square on Friday, July 3, 2015, in downtown Mobile. Ingram and police reached an agreement allowing her to leave the property and avoid trespassing charges. (Mike Kittrell/mkittrell@al.com)

Stimpson, during the council meeting, did not speak. Barber did the speaking and took the blame for the lack of communication with GSC. Boswell, later on Tuesday, said that Stimpson agreed to meet with the GSC on July 5.

The latest tree-related skirmish continues an issue that has confounded Stimpson during much of his tenure as mayor.

Since at least 2015, the mayor’s past administrations have struggled to combat criticism that they were insensitive to the trees.

Examples include:

  • In 2015, nine live oak trees were destroyed near Mobile’s Bienville Square to make room for a future hotel. Outraged residents took to social media and fired off criticisms. One woman even chained herself to a live oak tree in protest.
Donald Trump Mobile

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The 2019 incident led to compromises, more applause from activists like Boswell. In March 2019, the GSC met with Stimpson and his staff to hash out an agreement that included protecting 87 trees along Broad Street.

Said Boswell, “We hope to open those lines of communication again.”

‘Trees in Peril’

Boswell said aside from communication concerns, he was surprised the city decided to remove the three trees. He said they had been previously surveyed and were considered “viable,” and could be incorporated into the design and development of the Broad Street project.

“This is the first indication where major trees were removed because someone didn’t look far enough into the design of the plan,” said Boswell, who blames the city for removing the trees to accommodate a bicycle path. He argues the bike path could have been relocated, which would have allowed the city to preserve the trees.

Barber disagrees. He said the bike path had nothing to do with the decision to remove them.

Broad Street Mobile

Construction activity along Broad Street in downtown Mobile as pictured on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. The activity resulted in the removal of two live oak trees adjacent to Government Street United Methodist Church. Activists with the non-profit group, Government Street Collaborative, are calling on the city of Mobile to be more communicative with them about the potential to remove trees during the reconstruction of Broad Street. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

He also said there was no way the city could have decided whether to preserve the trees without first analyzing their roots. That could only be done, Barber said, by digging up the road and discovering how far the tree roots extended into the roadway.

“It’s like trying to diagnose the car without pulling the hood up,” said Barber. “Until we do that, we don’t know what we’re dealing with underground. We don’t know until we get there.”

The city spent $30,000 on what Barber described as a hydro excavation, which involves using pressurized water to remove soil so work crews can examine a tree root structure without damaging the root system.

Barber said that nine trees were examined. He said that of those nine, three of them were discovered to have structural roots that jutted 10 to 15 feet out into the roadway.

“That would have put the trees in peril,” Barber said.

‘Problem of trust’

Boswell said the GSC, after learning the three trees were slated for removal, questioned why the city did not have a design in place for the Broad Street project that would have preserved them.

According to the GSC’s account, the city’s director of programs and project management – ​​Jennifer Greene – forwarded questions and concerns from the GSC to the city’s administration including City Attorney Ricardo Woods. Last Wednesday, the GSC attempted to contact Stimpson and request a meeting, but they never heard back.

By Friday, following phone tag between Woods and Boswell, the trees were chopped down.

Councilman William Carroll, who represents the downtown area, said he took the majority of phone calls Friday from angry residents.

Carroll also said residents need to be kept informed of what’s going on, and that a tree replacement program be put into place.

“There needs to be a solid plan in place if we ever have to destroy a tree, that we know how we will replace them with more trees for the canopy that we need,” Carroll said.

Councilman Scott Jones said he was concerned that the city’s administration did not reach back out to Boswell and the GSC to provide clarity about the trees that were being removed.

“Obviously, trees are an important aspect of our city,” he said. “I know when I have visitors from out-of-state, the first thing they mention is ‘what a beautiful city we have because of the trees.’”

Boswell said the lack of communication throughout the process creates a “problem of trust between the citizens and its government.”

“During the 2019 negotiations, I have to say that I was impressed with the mayor and the administration’s efforts in trying to make something good come out of a bad situation,” he said. “I hope the mayor and his administration has the same type of ability to work with us and to rebuild that trust and communication so we can make certain we don’t lose any more of these very large and important trees.”

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