Proposed underground utilities sparks debate in Magnolia Springs

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MAGNOLIA SPRINGS - The section of Oak Street approximately from Jessamine to Bay has become of large interest to citizens of Magnolia Springs after a proposal to install underground utilities in the location. The discussion began with former Mayor Bob Holk and is now being examined by Mayor Kim Koniar. The concern is what will cause more damage to the trees: continued trimming and pruning in the future or the installation of underground utilities?

After a meeting by the Tree and Streetscapes committee, a public town meeting held on Feb. 7, and the town’s February workshop, the debate is still ongoing.

“The impression I was under is that if they keep trimming it can damage the condition of the trees, as well as it can be unsightly,” Koniar said during the workshop. “But is it eventually going to damage the trees if you continue to trim them back ten feet every three years? That is the reason why we had this discussion about underground utilities, and I want to hear from a contracted arborist about the potential of using an air spade, how can you protect the root system, and is it better to go underground or to trim.”

The timing marks the three-year cycle when Magnolia Springs’ trees are trimmed by Riviera Utilities, who would also be installing the underground utilities were to town to approve the vote.

“This section that we’re talking about has not been trimmed yet, but the other trees in the town have already been trimmed,” Koniar said. “This section that is up for discussion has not yet been trimmed just in case the underground is approved by council.”

Since it is trimming season, the council is pushing to make a decision before hurricane season begins.

The proposed project would use directional boring for installation, meaning an operator would use a directional boring machine to bore into the ground and direct it to where it needs to be. The engineers would then match the current location of the poles that are now in place to sit a transformer. Transformers are about 42 inches by 42 inches, and the engineers would place the pipes four feet into the ground.

No boring under trees would take place, with the majority taking place as near to the pavement as possible and the excavation staying between the trees. The distance from the road depends on the placement of current utilities already underground.

The concern citizens have centers around the boring and the placement of the transformers damaging the roots of the oak trees that line the street. Many residents of the area state they purchased homes on Oak Street specifically due to the beauty of the large oaks, and they do not want to see them harmed by the installation of underground utilities. Riviera Utilities’ engineers stated that while they don’t want to cut any roots, it will be virtually impossible to not cut at least some. The extent of how many roots may be cut worries many town citizens, who stated their fears during the public meeting led by Riviera Utilities.

Other citizens state that oak trees are resilient, and they don’t believe a project such as the proposed will damage the trees extensively. The question the majority of citizens asked was do they want to take such a large risk.

“When I walked the section of street detailed in the project I didn’t have many warning bells going off because of the boring,” said Beau Brodbeck, extension specialist in community forestry and arboriculture with Auburn. “The only warning bells that went off in my head were the four poles that were within those trees. It’s tight. Underground utilities are wonderful, when it’s done right it can be fantastic, but it’s just getting those details worked out to make sure that we don’t dig in and find out there’s more roots there than we hoped for. Just a little more investigation could fix that, because these trees are a treasure to this community.”

Brodbeck stated while he didn’t think continued trimming of the trees would invite disease or insects, pruning was a controlled wound to the trees. He said his largest concern was how close the oaks were planted together, stating that after 80 years of growth the trees along that street should be larger than where they are today. The tight planting has stunted their growth, and there was potential for the canopies to grow further were it not for the three-year trimmings. While he saw no issues with future trimming, it would nevertheless prevent the canopies from fully developing. In the end, his suggestion was to investigate further and be sure the minimal number of roots would be disturbed were the project to move forward.

“When it comes to root damage with oaks, oaks are tough and resilient, one of the tougher trees in this area,” Brodbeck said. “But when you have trees that are high value I don’t feel comfortable taking gambles, whenever you’re cutting roots and saying that you’ve seen other trees survive, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. I recommend looking into these alternatives to minimize the damage. When you ask what these alternatives are going to cost, you have to look at the value of the trees to the community and what the best management will be.”

James Wallace, operations manager at Riviera, stated that while the process of directional boring seemed new to the town, other utilities have been placed underground already, such as gas and water. He said during services companies come and have to dig, which will be how underground utilities will work. He expressed interest in pursuing further investigations into alternate methods such as using an air spade were the town interested.

After much discussion with citizens, the council and Tree and Streetscapes Committee have agreed to look into alternate methods and to acquire into hiring an independent arborist to give opinions on trimming vs. boring. A final decision will be made after further investigation.

For more information, visit www.townofmagnoliasprings.org. Additionally, the Tree and Streetscapes Committee meets the first Tuesday of every month at 4 p.m. at Town Hall.