Let's find way to plant trees on Calhoun

These new live oak trees are some of the few that the city of Charleston managed to plant along Calhoun Street before the state Department of Transportation stepped in and put the brakes on.

Mayo Read's vision was a simple one: beautify Calhoun Street by raising money to plant about 100 new live oaks along the length of it, from river to river.

Reality has proven more complex.

Read heads Charleston Trees, a nonprofit arm of the Charleston Horticultural Society that raises money for tree planting. The city chips in by providing the labor to put them in the ground and irrigate them during their first year.

Raising the money was pretty easy, as businesses and others along the street recognize the advantages the trees would offer.

The first 15 trees were planted not long ago -- on the section between Ashley Avenue and the Ashley River.

Then the project stunted.

"The highway department said, 'Stop.' We can't get them to agree that what we want to do is the right thing to do," Read says. "It's complicated. The highway department owns Calhoun Street. They own the sidewalks, too, so they have total control over it."

Matt Compton of Charleston's Parks Department says the primary issue is that -- according to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices -- the trees can block the sight-line of those turning onto

Calhoun from a side street.

"Our friends at the DOT -- and I'm not being facetious, we have to work with them on so many things -- their guidelines are set up for the entire state," Compton says. "When you apply them to a historic urban area like Charleston, it's challenging."

Compton says the city is requesting exemptions, and he's hopeful those will be in hand by the fall -- the earliest any new oaks could go in the ground (Charleston's urban foresters only plant new trees between October and early April).

Compton says the city needs to convince the state that the trees won't put motorists at risk. "We also have to convince them that the live oak is an acceptable street tree for an urban area," he says. "The reason we know that it is is it's one of the few trees you can contort to form to accommodate buildings and overhead power lines."

It seems strange the DOT would raise objections now, particularly since the city did something virtually identical along East Bay Street 20 years ago. More than 300 live oaks were planted along that state-owned road.

Rules are rules, but as old-school journalist H.L. Mencken once noted, "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

Sure, the state must balance safety with beautification efforts, but despite what some manual says, it's hard to find any evidence that downtown is a more dangerous place to drive because of its thousands of street trees. Would each of them need exemptions to be replaced today?

Read says his frustration extends beyond Calhoun. He would like Charleston Trees to launch a similar effort along Savannah Highway and other visible streets, but can't at the moment.

"What's next is nothing until we can solve this Calhoun Street issue," he says. "We can't go out and campaign with all this money sitting in the bank, unused."

Compton says the ball's in his court, and he's confident things eventually will get worked out, adding, "It's amazing how complicated simple things can be."

Glenn Keyes Architects recently won a Palladio award at the Traditional Building Conference for last year's steeple addition to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Broad Street. While the century-old building originally was designed with a steeple in mind, the church didn't decide to build it until recently. Keyes' design blends with the building's historic Gothic architecture while meeting new wind and earthquake codes.

Robert Behre may be reached at 937-5771 or by fax at 937-5579. His e-mail address is rbehre@postandcourier.com, and his mailing address is 134 Columbus St., Charleston, SC 29403.