Ca Treads Lightly On Tree Plan

Safety Issue Raised At Symphony Woods

August 09, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

The death of a Columbia tree by chain saw often provokes a public outcry, which is why the Columbia Association is moving cautiously as it cuts down 18 large, decades-old damaged trees in Symphony Woods, the town's grove bordering Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"The public is going to be concerned when they see the trees come down," said Cynthia A.S.H. Coyle, who chairs the CA board's Planning and Strategy Committee. "The reason is obvious," said Steve Sattler, CA's communications director. "There are safety issues with people walking in Symphony Woods now."

The trees slated for removal are sick, damaged and dying and must be cut down, according to Chick Rhodehamel, CA's director of open space management.

But officials also don't want the activity confused with other, more extensive plans to remake the woods with an interactive water fountain, cafe, a plaza and wide walking pathways to attract more visitors to the mostly deserted area.

That redevelopment plan is in sharp contrast with the vision proposed by General Growth Properties, Columbia's master developer, as part of its 30-year plan to remake Town Center into a more urban downtown. Greg F. Hamm, a GGP vice president and Columbia's general manager, has said that includes planting thousands of trees as part of a major environmental restoration of the general Merriweather area, including Symphony Woods, which he's said has deteriorated over time.

The GGP plan calls for several cultural buildings like a new library or a children's theater at the wood's edge along Little Patuxent Parkway, while the CA concept created by veteran planners Cy Paumier and Robert Tennenbaum envisions a much less intensive project.

Gregg Schwind, a new board member from Hickory Ridge, also voiced resentment over GGP's temerity in crafting a plan for woods owned by CA.

"This is our land," Schwind said at the committee's meeting Wednesday night.

"We're not playing ball with GGP. We don't want to be part of their proposal at all. We want to go our own way," he said. The board is also working on a letter to Howard County officials making that clear.

Hamm, who did not attend the meeting, said later that GGP "is delighted to see CA finally engaging in positive activity for Symphony Woods." The main goal, he said, is to connect Merriweather with the offices, hotels, new stores and homes planned around the Mall in Columbia, and to environmentally restore the area. "I would hope they go the community's way," he said in reply to Schwind.

To further clarify the difference in the two ideas, CA is planning a public presentation of its own Symphony Woods plan Sept. 16 at Slayton House in Wilde Lake, followed by an outdoor presentation in the woods Sept. 26, Sattler said.

That's also why the association is inviting residents to go to the woods at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 20 for a tour of the mostly tulip poplar and black gum trees marked for cutting.

"We show people the trees. If they have questions, we can answer them," Coyle said.

Rhodehamel said one tree that was leaning heavily has already been taken down, and he is anxious to remove the rest.

"These trees are trying to struggle in a very heavily human-managed habitat," he said. In a report, he said the two big annual spring events that flood the woods with people, Wine in the Woods and the Capital Jazz Fest, compact the soil around tree roots and damage their trunks with trucks, equipment and tent stakes. Combined with disease, occasional lightning strikes, other storm damage and old age, his staff's annual inspection revealed more than normal damage.

Columbia Association annually takes down five or six trees and prunes branches before Wine in the Woods in mid-May to prevent injuries, he said, but more extensive work is required every five or six years. The soil must be aerated, and new grass and ground cover are planted.

With more and more people attending the two big events each year, efforts to prolong tree life with pruning and trimming have been less effective, he said.

David Redmiles, a Mount Airy arborist hired by CA, recommended the 18 trees that should be cut down.

When CA builds the fountain, plaza, cafe and pathways it plans for Symphony Woods, more trees might have to go, Rhodehamel said.

Suzanne Waller, Town Center's representative on the CA board, asked Rhodehamel if the trees being removed would be replaced by new ones.

"It used to be said if you take down one tree, you plant two," she said.

"That was Smokey the Bear, not the Columbia Association," he joked, adding that more trees will be planted later.

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