How can Wilmington's trees recover from Florence?

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City forestry staff ended their hurricane response in February, now have a year-long backlog of tree maintenance

WILMINGTON — The stumps are reminders of what once stood.

Throughout the Cape Fear region, stumps are all that is left of trees toppled by Hurricane Florence’s winds, falling out of fully saturated soil. Enough trees fell that Wilmington forestry crews remained in storm-response mode from when the hurricane landed in the region in September until the end of February.

“There are still broken limbs all over town that we just have not been able to get to, and we’ll continue to work on those as we get to them, so it’s going to be a while,” said Aaron Reese, Wilmington’s forestry management supervisor. “I can very safely say it’s going to be another year before there’s no sign of damage from that hurricane, and that’s assuming we don’t get another one.”

Trees have become a hot topic in Wilmington City Council chambers, with Florence casting attention on their benefits at reducing stormwater runoff and raising questions about whether the city has enough staff to maintain nearly 1,000 acres of canopy.

And even as Florence’s damages are still being tallied, city council could soon be asked to — for the third consecutive year — fund efforts to plant and maintain trees.

Florence’s damage

In its 2017-18 budget, council restored a line item cut in the depths of the Great Recession that provided for the planting of new trees, giving $25,000 to the effort. In 2018-19, that was bumped to $50,000, and council also provided two more positions so the city maintenance department would have three fully staffed maintenance crews.

Still, the department largely bases its activity on complaints from residents.

During a March 18 council agenda meeting, Amy Beatty, the city’s public services director, said, “We’re largely reactive. We would like to work to a place where we’re more proactive, and I think we were on that path with the additional resources city council had approved the last two budget cycles, however then Hurricane Florence landed.”

City tree staff filled 2,875 maintenance orders in fiscal year 2017-18. And shortly before the storm hit, the average wait time for citizens calling in tree concerns had dipped under six months — a wait Reese now believes could be as long as a year.

“From basically that second week of September until the end of February, we did nothing but storm damage,” he said, adding any complaint is evaluated by him or the city’s tree crew supervisor, with those classified as immediate hazards moving to the front of the line.

Florence also damaged one of the area’s most notable horticultural assets, felling about 275 major trees at Airlie Gardens, meaning trees whose trunks measure at least 6 inches. Areas that were heavily damaged include the mystery grave and both the entrance and exit driveways.

Through fundraisers, Airlie has raised enough money to purchase about 100 trees.

“We realize it takes decades for the canopy to recover. It’s not instant trees or anything like that,” said Scott Childs, Airlie Gardens’ grounds maintenance supervisor, adding he is concerned that fallen trees could have opened up new areas for sunlight and water to come in, allowing weeds and other growth.

Counting stumps

While everyone within city government agrees Florence was catastrophic to the trees that line city streets and stand in its parks, figuring out exactly how many trees fell — and thus how many will need to be planted — is an inexact science.

DRC, Wilmington’s debris contractor, estimated that at least 1,500 trees fell, a number Reese said was likely on “the extreme low end” because it is based on the number of trees DRC removed that were either heavily damaged or leaning. Trees that had already fallen were simply picked up, not counted or included in the estimate.

In an effort to determine a more precise number, city tree staff have started the process of driving around, counting up the number of stumps in public rights-of-way and in parks. But that process is just beginning, with Reese saying three of about 50 grids across the city have been fully evaluated to see how many trees fell.

“It’s having to pull staff off of something else to do that (seek stumps), so it’s here or there as we can, just trying to work it in,” he said.

Reese is in the process of hiring the ninth and final funded tree crew position, a job that will let him have three crews of three men apiece.

More staffing needed?

The Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) and city staff have been working on a study analyzing trees’ impact on stormwater throughout the city, with the nonprofit providing Wilmington and 11 other cities in the Southeast with tools to analyze which watersheds need more trees.

During an early February presentation, Karen Firehock, the GIC’s executive director, told city council that an acre of pavement will result in 27,000 gallons of stormwater runoff in an inch of rain, while an acre of urban forest will lead to 750 gallons of runoff.

Among Firehock’s recommendations for city staff were adding five more people to the city’s tree crew, as well as assigning a geographic information system (GIS) staffer to collaborate with forestry crews to determine which parts of the city need more trees.

“You have some great ordinance on the books, but you don’t have enough staff to go out and enforce (them). …I know I’m talking about budget implications, but this is all spending money in a smart way so that we have less costs later,” Firehock said.

Additionally, Firehock told council the city should create a street-by-street analysis showing where trees are at risk, a tool that would allow forestry staff to address concerns pre-storm.

“What you really need to do to be prepared for storm like Florence,” she said, “is to actually, before the storm, have that inventory of your street trees and understand their condition and take down or manage — whether you have to take down a limb or strengthen something — so that tree is not a risk.”

City legal staff, however, has historically recommended against performing such an analysis, citing the fact that once crews know a tree is a risk, they have to act on it or open the city to liability.

John Joye, the city’s attorney, said, “A balance must be struck between the resources you have available to deal with any problems you discover and the resources that are devoted to discovering any issues. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to put all your resources into discovering anything and not leave anything to take care of problems you find.”

During her Monday presentation, Beatty told city council they could fund a tree pruning program for about 2,000 street trees under 10 years old with a contractor for $180,000 annually or internally for a roughly $235,000 bill the first year followed by $132,536 annually.

“If you start to prune young trees from the beginning, you start to improve their branch structure and promote healthy development,” Beatty said.

Reese is part of a group of city staff from parks and recreation, the planning department and the stormwater department working to see which of GIC’s 18 recommendations could be implemented in Wilmington. It will likely, Reese said, take at least three months before staff is done sorting through the recommendations and creating a responsive plan seeking to implement some over the short term and others over longer periods.

Items being considered include, among others, establishing tree canopy goals by watershed, conducting ongoing land assessments to help guide where to plant trees, updating tree codes, establishing stormwater reduction credits and, yes, additional staffing.

Planting new trees

At some point, though, the city will need to begin the process of replacing the thousands of fallen trees. Replacing downed trees with new plantings will likely begin downtown, such as along Third Street and other “gateways” into Wilmington, and in some select other places in the next several weeks.

“(That’s) just the most high-profile part of the city,” Reese said. “That’s seen every day by everybody coming and going out of town, so we’ll try to get in now and get that started.”

While North Third Street will soon see some kind of young live oaks planted, most locations where Florence felled trees will, Reese said, need to wait until fall or winter for new plantings.

“We are planning to do everything that we can to replace every one that’s lost where it’s feasible to do it,” he said.

During the 2017-18 fiscal year, when council appropriated $25,000 toward tree planting, city tree staff removed 445 dead or damage trees and planted 254 — a replacement rate of 57 percent. While the funds were bumped up in fiscal year 2018-19, so was the damage, with Hurricane Florence impacting thousands of trees.

To that end, Beatty suggested to council that bumping the tree planting fund from $50,000 to $75,000 could help staff plant one tree for every one that is removed.

“If council has appetite to trend in that direction, an additional $25,000 would get us to that one-to-one ratio,” Beatty said Monday.

At least one member of city council indicated he was interested in reaching that goal.

“We can’t go two-for-one very long,” said Neil Anderson. “We’ve got to take a look at that bottom line and talk about trying to work that into the budget. I don’t know where the money will come from, but I’d like to at least dig around and see if we can find it.”

Reporter Adam Wagner can be reached at 910-343-2389 or