The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

October 30, 2012

Doomed courthouse trees not hemlock after all

By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier

— Since August, the Limestone County Commission has been struggling with the fate of two hemlock trees bordering the courthouse.

It seems the trees have become a menace. But now it seems the trees are not hemlocks after all.

In late August, four limbs fell from the east-side tree onto the sidewalk. Two of the limbs were 16 to 18 inches in diameter. The east-side tree is also leaning, though away from the building.

Officials worried about crowds gathered on the courthouse lawn for the annual Art on the Square event. Athens High School students also meet on the Square for pep rallies.

It was agreed the trees had to go, but County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee said because the removal of what some consider historic trees has in the past caused an uproar among preservationists, a report would be requested from an Auburn University horticulturalist.

Back in the late 1980s, the commission voted to cut a hemlock tree on the southwest corner that posed a danger to the building. Commissioner Bill Latimer said the tree prevented one side of the building from staying dry and caused the interior plaster to swell.

He said community activists created quite the “hoo-ha” over the commission’s plans to cut the tree.

“I caught hell over it,” said District 1 Commissioner Gary Daly, who was then the commission chairman. “I cut the one they said was going to damage the building, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have cut the rest. I like the trees, but they were set too close to the building.”

The fate of the trees could ride on the horticulturalist’s report.

“I don’t want to make a decision like that without somebody (surveying the tree),” said Menefee.

“On a windy day if there are people under (the tree), it could be bad,” Menefee said. “I’m not a tree killer, but my job is to protect the public.”

Doug Chapman of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System had already told Menefee that both trees should come down

The decaying trees — one on the east side and the other on the west side of the building — were planted too close to the courthouse in the first place some 79 to 89 years ago, according to Chapman.

On Sept. 28, Dr. Joe Eakes, a professor in the horticulture department at Auburn University, visited Athens and inspected the trees. According to Chapman, Eakes concurred the trees should come down, but he said the trees are not Eastern Hemlocks as first thought, but rather Atlas cedars.

Chapman said the cedars are true cedars and grow in the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco and are closely related to the famed cedars of Lebanon. The trees are more common in the Pacific Northwest.

“Looking back on it, I recall that there was another very large Atlas cedar growing at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center at Belle Mina a few years ago,” said Chapman. “This tree too was cut down and removed around five years ago because it declined and died.

“I have also seen the tree growing in Clanton. I don’t recall anyone every pointing to one and telling me what it was until Dr. Eakes did so. One walks in all the light one has. I am very happy to be corrected, to set the record straight and am delighted to learn about this tree.”

So it would seem these trees by another name still do not smell sweet and will have to go under the chain saw for the good of all.