Tree Sacrifice in Durham Pains Builder

Mark Heizer recalls one Saturday in November when he set out to destroy 11 trees on his property at the behest of the city Public Works Department.

DURHAM, NC — Mark Heizer recalls one Saturday in November when he set out to destroy 11 trees on his property at the behest of the city Public Works Department.

"As soon as I cranked that chain saw up, it got cloudy," he remembers.

Today, a collection of stumps with more rings than Heizer can count frames a gleaming sidewalk that goes nowhere in front of Bizzy Bee's Garden, the South Durham day-care that Heizer built. The Realtor with a preservationist streak says he's pained just thinking about the tree limbs rotting behind his Chapel Hill barn.

While developers around town are busy planting saplings to satisfy city zoning officials and neighbors wanting a green shield, Heizer is holding a 200-foot piece of sidewalk hostage, refusing to deed it over to the city until he can get someone to explain why the trees that blocked the power lines across the street had to come down.

Public Works Director Katie Kalb offered this answer: Trees are a major liability in the public right of way. Better them fall now than fall on someone later.

But Heizer, who lives on 10 acres with llamas and sheep, said he never would have renovated his Watkins Road day-care if someone had given him a heads-up that trees can't line a public sidewalk. According to his timeline, it wasn't until November the final week of construction that inspectors told him to clear the area for a sidewalk. Heizer said his approved site plan showed only four trees with the potential to be uprooted. He tried unsuccessfully to work with inspectors to curve the sidewalk around them, he said.

To strike a compromise, Kalb said, Heizer needed to consult with an urban forester to certify the health of the trees. But he was in a rush to open, she said.

The department makes an exception in older, tree-lined neighborhoods such as Trinity Park, Kalb said, where sidewalks zigzag around tree roots. Similarly, utility poles sometimes trump sidewalk construction.

Durham City-County Appearance Commission member George Stanziale said one of the commission's principal tasks is to encourage more trees along street curbs, which could become part of an overall land-use strategy for the county. Stanziale, an architect, worked on The Streets at Southpoint mall and recalled spending $10,000 to move 30 elms less than a foot out of the right of way.

Another appearance commission member, Mike Waldroup, who built Patterson Place shopping center off U.S. 15-501, said he thought the classic tree-lined street encouraged motorists to slow down.

City policy is "driven by this simple-minded notion that if it ain't grass on city property, it is a liability," Waldroup said.

One month after he hacked the trees down, Heizer said, he was told by a city inspector that he jumped the gun. Inspector Thad Talisman told Heizer in December that he had won a variance after the situation was reported to a City Council member, who, in turn, informed the city manager, Heizer said. Kalb said Friday there is no such thing as a tree variance. Talisman did not return phone calls.

Heizer, meanwhile, has hired a lawyer and planted an extra Christmas tree to assuage the guilt.

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