By Katie Fallon

Debate has continued on the fate of a large water oak tree that seemingly lies in the path of two major redevelopment projects in Sandy Springs.

The tree, which measures approximately 66 inches in diameter, is located on Abernathy Road, just west of the Roswell Road intersection.

Members of the City of Sandy Springs staff and concerned citizens and arborists gathered at the tree on Nov. 5 to discuss how best to protect the tree during construction of both the Georgia Department of Transportation’s (GDOT) widening project on Abernathy Road and the Greenway Linear Park.

The tree lies just outside the actual boundary of the road widening project and has been slated to be just one of the linear park’s natural attractions.

The linear park is being designed by the landscape architecture firm PBS&J. Consultant John Boudreau said the firm always intended to include the tree in the park and will also coordinate with GDOT for protecting it.

“We identified it as a tree we wanted to save and would like to save,” Boudreau said. “We’re going to prepare recommendations and alternatives. I don’t think cost is an issue. I think from GDOT’s standpoint, it’s more of a safety issue.”

Trees Sandy Springs president Nina Cramer said her main concern is about the hustle and bustle that normally characterize projects like the road widening and the park.

“Parking equipment here is going to be very desirable,” Cramer said. “Houses will be coming down so there will be a lot of activity here.”

As a possible solution, Cramer has suggested building a fence around the tree to protect it from dangerous, earth-moving equipment. The city’s deputy director of public works, John Drysdale, said that is a cost the city could take on. The timeline of when that fence could go up is dependent on GDOT.

“We don’t know the GDOT start date yet,” Drysdale said. “They’ve even delayed it and delayed it and delayed it. They should have already started by now. They’re talking March now, but you get the contractor’s schedule and they may not even be working out here for another year. We’ll figure that out. It’ll probably be this spring.”

Despite the back-and-forth nature of the debates regarding the tree, Cramer said she is happy with all parties’ willingness to look out for what’s best for the health of the massive tree.

“Thank God everybody’s trying to save the tree and that’s real obvious,” Cramer said. “Everybody’s making the effort so it’s wonderful that everybody has come together.”

To further protect the tree during construction and onward, Arborguard arborist David Dechant suggested asking GDOT about putting in an aeration system. City arborist Michael Barnett, however, said the idea has already been broached with GDOT, but that the agency was did not seem agreeable to the measure.

Dechant also suggested letting volunteers do by hand what work comes closest to the tree.

“We just need to be careful,” he said. “We wouldn’t want Bobcats coming in here doing some of the work we could do by hand.”

But how to save the tree during the various nearby construction projects was not the only issue brought up at the outdoor meeting.

ArborMedics disputes recent claims to the age and size of the tree as well as the remaining lifespan of the specimen.

Recent community discussions have placed the age of the tree anywhere from 70 to 125 years old. Hastings said he believed the general consensus is that the tree is about 75 years old, which makes the tree neither unique nor historic.

Though he admits the tree is both an asset to the community and worth protecting, Hastings said details about the water oak have been embellished.

“It’s not really a historic tree. You get slammed by anybody who knows the truth. That’s just not even close to being true,” he said. “Brookwood Hills and Ansley Park are the major neighborhoods that have hundreds of tree of this exact same kind. They might not be quite as large, but they’re the same age. They’re well documented because they all went in at the same time.”

Because of the branch configuration of the tree, the arborist said the tree has grown an abnormally large base, which in turn can create a large root system. The generally accepted formula to calculate the length of the root system is to figure anywhere from 1 to 11.3 feet per inch of diameter.

“But trees don’t always follow that guideline,” the arborist said.

Hastings likewise said it is unlikely the tree will last for decades into the future. Even more realistic, he said, is that the tree could die in as little as another five years time.

“This one has four or five weak crotches, we call them. Water oaks mimic your human life span. They tend to be 75 to 100 plus years in these conditions.”

Although there was not a GDOT representative at the Nov. 5 meeting, the city’s deputy public works director Drysdale assured those in attendance that he would forward all their suggestions to the state agency.