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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

City of Wilmington and New Hanover County talk trees for NC Arbor Day

Beautiful tree canopy including Live Oak branches in Wilmington.
Benjamin Schachtman
Tree canopy overhead of Market Street near 16th Street in downtown Wilmington.

In honor of North Carolina Arbor Day, WHQR sat down to talk trees with representatives of the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County.

Nationally, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday of April – but many states celebrate their own Arbor Day, based around the best time to start planting trees. For North Carolina, that’s Friday, March 22. Although in Wilmington, many arborists and tree enthusiasts — including the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees — suggest starting even earlier.

But, even if you’re not looking to plant some trees, North Carolina Arbor Day is still a good day to talk about trees. So, WHQR sat down with Sally Thigpen, assistant director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Wilmington, and Rebekah Roth, New Hanover County’s Planning and Land Use director.

Tree City USA

If you’ve driven around Wilmington, you’ve seen the “Tree City USA” signs. But what does that really mean?

“That's a great question,” Thigpen said. “The city of Wilmington has been a Tree City, USA since 2002. It's an national organization through the Arbor Day Foundation. And in order to be a Tree City, USA, you have to have a tree board or commission, celebrate Arbor Day, every year, and have some code and provisions around tree protection in your city, all of which we meet.”

Thigpen said the city is “very invested in protecting and preserving and sustaining the urban forest in the City of Wilmington.” She said the city had an 11-person team responsible for the urban forest.

“Trees are an incredible community resource and I see our urban canopy as green infrastructure – infrastructure that's just as important as our roads and utilities and other infrastructure that the city invests in,” she said. “Trees improve air and water quality. They're positively impacting property values. They intercept and absorb stormwater, which works in tandem with our gray infrastructure that deals with stormwater management. And trees are beautiful. So it creates a sense of place and a community where people want to live and contributes really positively to people's mental and physical health and wellness.”

To that end, Wilmington has participated in or spearheaded a number of projects to relocate one of the region’s most beloved trees: the Live Oak.

“Live Oaks are really iconic in Wilmington. And we really place some of the highest value on those trees because they can live the longest, and not only lend themselves to the appearance of our city and sort of the iconic vision of that Live Oak — but also because they live so long, they put back those environmental services back into the community. So the longer they live, the bigger they get, the more oxygen they're producing, the more stormwater they're mitigating, etc.”

Back in 2017, the City of Wilmington partnered with the developer of the Ogden Publix, New Hanover County, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and the Wilmington Tree Commission, to move a 250-year old tree known as the “Ogden Oak”about 50 years to save it from being destroyed.

More recently, the city approved roughly $180,000 to move five Live Oak trees on South 17th Street.

“We did make a pretty big investment last year to move some Live Oaks on 17th Street. And we had to hire a company out of Florida that is skilled in that area, because we didn't want to make that investment and then the trees die anyway. So they were able to move them and we're watching them closely. We were able to move them down the median and preserve that incredible resource,” Thigpen said.

Trees in the final frontier

In the northern part of New Hanover County, which has thousands of acres of trees, there is a development boom in the works. The county used federal Covid-relief funds to help support water and sewer infrastructure in the area, and already several large parcels of land are pursuing rezonings.

County officials and planning staff call it “the final frontier.”

Last year, Roth said, the county included funding for a tree canopy study — similar to one done by the City of Wilmington — that will help it map out the existing forest conditions in the county.

“We can set some goals so that even as property is developed, which we do see happening in a lot of the county, we can make sure that we're still maintaining this important green infrastructure,” Roth said.

Roth said the county’s current tree retention standards are based on saving individual trees, which works well when you have, for example, a large Live Oak. But it’s less effective at managing areas with a lot of smaller trees. An updated approach would help the county do that.

“Our current process is expensive. It requires a lot of upfront work, and it doesn't necessarily provide the value for the community or the ecosystem that we're really trying to get. So by establishing these tree canopy baselines, we can provide some optional standards that would allow for a different type of tree retention, you already have to retain open space when it comes to a residential development. You already have to have a certain number of trees per acre when it comes to non-residential development, but we'd really be able to gear it toward the best and most beneficial habitat and green infrastructure value for the community,” Roth said.

The Bradford Pear

In general, residents of southeastern North Carolina are passionate about trees and protecting both urban canopy and rural forests. With one exception: the Bradford Pear.

The Bradford Pear, as reviled as the Live Oak is beloved, is an invasive species that, in springtime, has an odor many residents find unpleasant (to put it mildly).

Asked about their feelings on the Bradford Pear, Thigpen said, half-jokingly, “they’re evil and must be stopped.”

Roth was a little more diplomatic, saying, ”not all trees are the same or provide the same value.”

Roth noted that whether or not they’re required by county regulations, developers often plant Bradford Pears because they do initially have some aesthetic appeal and grow quickly.

“So it's something that you can put in the ground, it's established quickly, and it makes a project look really nice at the beginning. But we always try to balance a project that may not look quite as nice on day one, but in 15 years, would actually be a really nice project. I think the hospital is a great example of that a lot of people aren't aware that a lot of the trees had to be removed when the hospital was developed. And you can't see that today. However, if they had planted Bradford Pears, it probably would have looked better in year two. And today, it would be a lot less nice for the community,” Roth said.


When it comes to advice on growing or maintaining trees on your own property, Thigpen said she always points people to the New Hanover County Extension, the Arboretum, and the NC State University website

“I'll also just remind folks that you want to be wary of what you plant under powerlines. Because you want to not put an oak tree under a power line. It's a lot of what we're seeing across the city now where that's occurred,” Thigpen said.

Thigpen also gave a shout-out to the Wilmington Tree Commission and the Alliance for Cape Fear Trees, calling the latter “a really important nonprofit partner.”

Roth noted that the tree canopy study the county is doing now will inform the comprehensive land-use plan process. She said the website for that should be up and running in April.

More resources:

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.