For the past several months, the city of Charleston and Dominion Energy have been grappling with an unfortunate problem: What to do about more than 170 palmetto trees that have matured to the point where their fronds interfere with overhead power lines, even sparking fires in some cases.
It’s related to but different from the much more familiar challenge of regularly pruning street trees — i.e., trees planted in the public right of way, most often between the sidewalk and the road — to reduce the risk of their branches breaking during a storm and snapping an electrical line on the way down.
The bad news is that the city and Dominion began work Wednesday to remove about 130 of these problematic palmettos from St. Philip and other downtown streets. The good news is that this unexpected problem has prompted the city to plant new trees in their place and to review and update its polices about which trees should be planted along certain types of streets. The city’s urban forester David Grant realizes removing the trees will be unpopular — partly because most won’t be replaced right at once. But he strikes an encouraging note: “This is the last time we’ll have to deal with this pain. We’re going to do it differently.”
We hope he’s right. Charleston has valued its street trees for centuries: In 1750, South Carolina’s provincial government began to encourage Charles Town residents to plant them in the streets in front of their homes. These trees provide much-needed shade and beauty, especially in downtown’s dense environs, and they also have been valued for their ability to wick up stormwater. A 2011 U.S. Forest Service study found that for every dollar Charleston spends maintaining its trees on public lands, it receives about $1.37 worth of benefits.
The city’s passion for these trees was stirred particularly after so many were blown down and otherwise lost during Hurricane Hugo in 1989, an event that led to the creation of the urban forestry position now held by Mr. Grant — and that also led to rapid replanting of trees, some of which, in hindsight, weren’t ideally suited to their site in the long run. “We have all these trees planted for all the right reasons,” he says, “but now as a community, we’re having to deal with what is out there, these thousands of trees.”
In January, Mayor John Tecklenburg spent a morning with Dominion’s experts touring problematic trees along the west side of the peninsula. The hope at the time was that some could be saved by placing power lines underground. While placing power lines underground is a great way to avoid future problems, the high cost of such work means it won’t be the near-term solution.
Instead, the city should continue to update its street tree manual, not only to specify which smaller tree species are appropriate to be planted under power lines but also to diversify the kinds of trees planted to safeguard against a massive loss should a blight emerge in the future. About 65% of Charleston’s street trees either are palmettos, live oaks or crepe myrtles. Moves to diversify can be tricky, though, given that the city justifiably gives residents and property owners some say in which trees are planted nearby, often because the cost of the new tree is donated.
Street trees can be as problematic as they are popular; not only can their canopies interfere with overhead utility lines, but their root balls also can cause sidewalks to heave and shift, even to the point of disrupting buried utilities. In short, it’s important to plant the right kind of tree in the right kind of place — and often to prune it so that its growth won’t pose a problem to nearby buildings or passing traffic.
Historians remember that Charleston once made the hugely controversial decision to remove healthy shade trees — it happened in 1837, as the city was rebuilding its streets to move storm drains from the middle to the sides. Hundreds were removed, which led directly to a more than decade-long effort to replace them, albeit one limited by questions over who should pay.
We’ve known for many, many generations that trees contribute greatly to the city’s quality of life — and also that a desirable urban forest is not cheap — so current city leaders should redouble efforts to ensure our street trees are planted and maintained in an energetic yet efficient manner for generations to come.