Highland prefers to keep its tree

Development: A change in ownership of a lot in the Howard County community could mean the ax for an oak that took root in Colonial days.

August 30, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

The 250-year-old white oak by Route 108 in Highland has survived the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and countless lightning storms.

But now it faces its biggest foe yet: development.

The oak, older than Howard County or, for that matter, the nation, stands in Highland's business district on the northwest side of Route 108.

If a new business goes in next to the oak, state and county officials say, they might have to cut down that tree - as well as several other white oaks along the road - to make way for a deceleration lane.

Officials say safety should come before history, but Highland residents disagree. They believe the oak, which was probably a sapling during the Colonial era, deserves more respect.

"It's part of the community, really," said Mildred Gallis, 64, who lives in a historic wood-and-mortar home across from the tree. Her great-grandfather bought the house for $100 in 1863. "It's part of the town. It would be a shame to lose that."

Smita P. Patel, who runs a pharmacy just down the street from the tree, called it "the roots of Highland."

The tree has escaped several brushes with potential development - including a post office - on the 1.5-acre lot where it stands.

But the location in fast-growing western Howard County, and the recent sale of that land, have intensified worries about the tree's fate.

The state and the county acknowledge that the tree is endangered.

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said the white oak might have to go, although the county will consider other alternatives first.

Dan Doherty, who works for the State Highway Administration in Howard County, said the same.

Former co-owner Marsha Stepowany said the 1.5-acre lot was sold this month.

Sam Ashai, an accountant who bought the property to put a small office building there, said he will do what he can to save the tree.

"I love the tree," he said. "I would prefer for it not to be cut down. ... But it's equally important nobody gets hurt."

Even though they've heard no final decision about the tree, residents of Highland are beginning to mourn its loss - and the loss of the charm it lends their town.

Highland, two miles southwest of Clarksville, has not felt the effects of suburbia's slow creep westward.

The business strip, no bigger than a city block, has a saddlery, a gift shop, a veterinarian, a family-owned supermarket and a feed store - but no chain stores.

Highland is a place where the supermarket advertises its "country sausages," and the gift shop has a wheelbarrow of flowers out front.

The cashier at the pharmacy will talk for 10 minutes about remedies for poison ivy, and the door of the feed store bears such notices as "Cats in Need of Barn Homes" and "Horses Boarded."

Everyone knows everyone else along the tiny Highland business strip - and they all know the 250-year-old oak tree, which casts shade over the feed store in summer and gives the area an old-time Main Street feel.

In 1976, the Maryland Forest Service designated the white oak a "Bicentennial Tree" and estimated its age to be 230.

Mike Galvin, supervisor of urban community forestry for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service in Annapolis, said it's not uncommon for trees to be felled to make way for roads.

Since 1989, he said, 2,130 acres of trees have been cleared for highways - some of them big.

But he said 2,433 acres of trees are planted every year to make up for it, and the State Highway Administration has to get permission to cut down especially big trees such as the oak that's attracting so much attention in Highland.

Highland Postmaster Bill Dailey said the U.S. Postal Service considered putting a post office on the site recently but decided against it, in part, because officials feared it could require removal of the tree.

Karen Koback, a clerk at the Highland Feed and Seed Company, said that others over the years have decided not to build on the land because they heard the tree would have to go to make way for the widening of Route 108.

"They were not interested in starting out on the wrong foot in the community," she said.

George Boarman, vice president of Boarman's Market in Highland, said people are not just worried about the tree, but about the small-town charm of Highland.

They're concerned that Highland will go the way of Clarksville, recently all but swallowed by the growth of Columbia.

Route 108 in Clarksville has all the signs of growth Highland residents don't want: gas stations, fast-food stores, auto repair shops, traffic lights and dozens of plastic signs competing for attention.

"They don't want to see what happened in Clarksville happen here," Boarman said.

Highland resident Emily Milne said it's ironic that people move to Highland for its quaintness - and in doing so, ruin that quaintness.

Milne said she has nightmare visions of a six-lane Route 108 one day running from Columbia to Olney, with no historic oaks in between.

"This is the only place that's left, and it won't be left for long," she said.

"They'll widen the roads, take all the stores out, and there'll be nothing left."

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