A decades-old hemlock tree on the east side of the Limestone County Courthouse may soon be cut because county officials believe it poses a safety hazard.
Last weekend, four limbs fell from the tree onto the sidewalk, two of which were 16 inches to 18 inches in diameter, according to county maintenance manager Ricky Thompson. He said the tree is also starting to lean away from the courthouse and poses a danger to anyone walking below.
“(The limbs) would definitely leave a knot on your head,” he said. “What’s concerning me, if it had been Art on the Square, it would have been bad news. I’ve been wanting to take it down for the last six years.”Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee said he loves trees and plants trees, but added the leaning tree represents a safety issue. He said the county’s liability insurance carrier would probably concur.
At the Athens High School pep rally held Thursday afternoon at the courthouse, yellow police tape was tied around the tree and extended out to keep visitors from walking on the sidewalk under the tree.
The situation is not one that’s foreign to the commission, however. 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 county asked Doug Chapman, a county extension agent, to come assess the tree this week. He said the tree is in decline and has problems.
“I think they’ll ultimately have to take it down and replace it, but that’s just what I saw,” he said.
Chapman said hemlock trees are native to Hartselle and are also found in Jackson and DeKalb counties. It’s not unheard of to find them in Limestone County, he said, but they are rare.
He estimated the tree at the courthouse to be about 100 years old, but said it would be difficult to tell without drilling out a core.
“They don’t transplant real well; that’s one of the bad things about them,” he said. “If they’re in a protected location, they can grow fairly fast.”
Retired attorney and author Jerry Barksdale was involved with a group in the late 1980s who tried to save the hemlock that Daly ordered cut down. Though he would hate to see another tree cut down, he worries about what the root system may be doing to the courthouse, arguably the county’s most recognizeable symbol.
“Something needs to be done, but I don’t know what the answer is,” he said.
Chapman said it’s unlikely the tree’s root system is running underneath the courthouse because it has a basement. However, he said the roots could damage the sidewalk.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Daly said. “If they think the one (on the east side) is bad, we should just cut them all.”