Locals called this historic tree, now a towering stump, “The Goldenwood Oak Tree.”
By Tony Tucci
Like many of the trees in Oak Hill, the large oak at the corner of RM 1826 and Crystal Hill Trail had stood for more than a century. Then people came and built a community and called the place Goldenwood in honor of the oak. They took pride in their trees, especially the large Spanish oak, which they called the Goldenwood Oak Tree. Like Grandmother Oak, the massive oak at William Cannon Drive and U. S. Highway 290 on Williamson Creek in Oak Hill, it symbolized their community.
So when the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) announced plans to widen Crystal Hill Trail and replace a small bridge not far from the intersection, the residents expressed concern. They held numerous meetings with county and state officials and were assured the oaks would not be harmed. Then, one morning early in May, as residents left their homes for work or their various daily activities, they were greeted with a nightmarish sight. The Goldenwood Oak Tree had been mutilated, all of its branches chopped off, the victim, officials said, of a “miscommunication.”
The sight sent a chill through the community that reached as far as Oak Hill, where residents wondered whether its oaks would be lost, too. TxDOT is slated to begin work on redesigning intersections along Hwy. 290 near the ‘Y’ this fall. Could Grandmother Oak suffer from a “miscommunication?”
“We did everything possible to protect our trees,” said Chris Lagarde. Crystal Hill Trail provides access to three neighborhoods — Goldenwood, Goldenwood West and Radiance — and residents of all three attended the meetings.
“Everyone was at those meetings including the project manager, but the work crews were not there,” said Lagarde, who lives in Radiance and is owner of PinPoint Vision, a local business marketing firm. “What more could we have done? Do we have to chain ourselves to a tree?”
Nona Birchfield, administrator of Goldenwood West Property Owners Association, said in an e-mail May 3 to her members that she was told by Precinct 4 Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant that “a serious breakdown in communication occurred which led to the TxDOT crews removing all of the branches from the century old Spanish Oak at the 1826 entrance. This tree was not slated to be removed.”
Birchfield included in her memo an apology from Don Nyland, a TxDOT engineer. “I would like to apologize to the neighborhood and Commissioner Whisenant especially because of the work he has done with the neighborhood to save the trees,” Nyland said. “This is due to a complete breakdown in communication between our contractor and his subcontractor. They were told that they could clear RM 1826 for construction but not do any work on Crystal Hills. We will be working with the contractor and arborist to determine what can be done.”
In an interview this week, Nyland said nothing could be done to restore the tree, which is now just a 20-foot stump. “We’ll do what we can to make up for the loss,” he said.
While “miscommunication” may seem like a lame excuse, it actually is what happened, Nyland said. The contractor, Capital Excavation Co. of Austin, and the subcontractor, Austin Tree Expert Co., both were aware that the tree was not to be touched. But Austin Tree does not work under power lines, Nyland said, so it hired a second-tier subcontractor, Davey Tree Expert Co., which was not aware of the concern.
The crew was told to cut the trees under the power line. It had been cutting mostly scrub trees that morning, but when they came to the massive oak, 31 inches in diameter, they went right on cutting. “You’d think someone would have questioned it,” Nyland agreed. “You’d think someone seeing a red light would stop, too, but a lot of them don’t.”
He added: “We just have to make sure this doesn’t happen when we get into Oak Hill.” He said he sees no need to change department procedures. Engineers will meet to identify the trees to be saved, and 2×4 barricades will be constructed around the trees to make sure that even road equipment can’t damage them. He said that process is a ways off, however.
The first phase of the road improvements, the continuous flow intersection, won’t be started until this fall, and that does not require any tree removal. The work will be done around the Convict Hill and RM 1826 intersections, with completion in six to nine months.
He said some trees at the southeast corner of William Cannon and 290 will be removed in phase two next year, but they are not big trees.
Nyland said he knows nothing about some lime-green ribbons that were placed around some trees along U.S. Highway 290, and it was not done by his department.
Despite his assurances, the loss of the Goldenwood Oak did not instill any confidence in a lot of Oak Hill residents.
“We have no guarantees,” said Albert Gonzales, an Oak Hill community activist and candidate for county commissioner. When he heard about the Goldenwood Oak, he sent e-mails to city and county officials, media outlets and anyone else he could reach.
“Someone needs to be held accountable for what they did to that defenseless tree,” Gonzales said. “We all need to be more vigilant and report these kinds of acts against trees to the authorities. This might provide the protection for our trees in Oak Hill.”
Another Oak Hill activist said in one of the e-mails that were being circulated as the news spread, that the cutting may have been deliberate: “This sounds like a case of ‘It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.’ No tree company would unknowingly mortally wound a tree like this. It can only be deliberate as far as I can figure it, likely on account of the tree being too much of a problem to deal with to get the project done.”
A local consulting arborist, Don Gardner, said the Goldenwood Oak Tree had an estimated value of between $10,000 to $12,000. “That’s the monetary value,” he said. “The tree actually was priceless. It can never be replaced. And it was one of the nicest Spanish Oaks I’ve ever seen.”
Gardner was not optimistic about the fate of the other oaks in Goldenwood, or the oaks in Oak Hill, whether they’re cut down or not. “Those trees are already dead,” he said of the trees in Oak Hill.
The arborist was hired by the Goldlenwood neighborhood and issued a report April 28. He said he examined four oaks, including the recently cut Goldenwood Oak Tree. One of the live oaks is 61 inches in diameter and about 250 years old.
“All four trees appear at risk of significant root loss and possible death if current plans (to widen Crystal Hill Trail) are implemented,” Gardner reported.
Roots go out, not down, Gardner said. The roots extend as far as the branches, and that boundary is called the “drip line.” Any construction work inside the drip line is going to affect the tree to some extent, depending on the tree’s age and health. Live oaks can take some root disturbance better than other trees, Gardner said. He said tree protection fencing must protect as much of the area inside the drip line as possible.
“I think you can just count those trees in Oak Hill as dead,” Gardner said. “Construction work is going to be so close that the tree will be affected.”
Gardner said if the public outcry is loud enough, some good may come out of it.
“I’m a firm believer in community activism,” Gardner said. “If enough people make some noise — not to stop construction but to figure out a design that will save the trees — then it could happen.”
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