Sandy Watson says she’s just sick about what has been going on up and down Mimosa the last few years.

The street is a perfect example of what makes Preston Hollow a great place to live. Huge pecan, cottonwood, magnolia and live oak trees line the road, their canopies stretching over rooftops and across the street, giving the neighborhood a welcoming feel.

But if the current trend continues, Watson fears that shady green landscape will be severely diminished. She has watched as house after house is sold and then torn down. Many trees are uprooted, and often the ones left standing die within a year or two of heavy and prolonged construction.

“It ruins the appeal of our street,” Watson says. “Maybe it’s time to take a stance on this.”

She’s not the only one talking about the problem. The presidents of both the Preston Hollow North and East homeowners associations are aware of the problem, saying it’s one of the most frequently cited concerns of homeowners and almost always occurs during the construction of “spec” homes – properties not yet under contract.

The scene is all too common in our neighborhoods. Longtime homeowners sell their modest homes to developers looking to turn a profit with construction of new and larger homes. And because the trend these days is toward larger houses, the surrounding vegetation suffers.

If the trees aren’t removed from the get-go, they might have dodged the bullet only temporarily. Watson has been watching construction crews trample the root systems of two live oaks down the street ever since the property was purchased. The situation became so bad that Watson and her neighbor reported the builder to the city’s building inspection department.

Section 51A-10.136 of the city’s tree ordinance – also known as the Preservation of Protected Trees During Construction or other Disturbance – requires builders to submit a “tree protection plan” before starting construction near protected trees, and to put up fencing around the drip line of the tree as well as erosion control fencing. If the builder violates the ordinance, work can be stopped at the site. A person convicted of violating the ordinance could be subject to a $2,000 fine per protected tree, and $2,000 per day for any other violation of the ordinance.

In this case, the builder was ordered to pay for an aeration and fertilization treatment in the hopes of bringing the tree back from the brink. Peter Martin of Tree Rescue Company did the work.

During a recent tour of our neighborhood, Martin pointed out endangered trees and shared some of the warning signs of diseased or unhealthy trees.

“It’s a real issue,” he says as he drives up and down Thackery and Lupton. “We have a lot of trees dying.”

A key indicator of a tree’s health is the amount of new growth on its limbs. By measuring the length between terminal buds, he can tell if the tree is growing and, therefore, whether it’s healthy or not.

During construction, the trees on a lot are subject to encroachment when vehicles drive too close to the trunk, or when bricks and debris are dumped on top of the root system. The weight of the heavy equipment and materials compacts the soil around the tree’s roots, making it impossible for the tree to get enough water and perform the gas exchange necessary for its survival. It’s as if the tree is being strangled to death, Martin says.

In other cases in which sprinkler systems, plumbing and pools are being installed, the roots themselves are cut – accidentally or due to contractor carelessness – during the trenching of a yard.

In both cases, a tree’s systemic response is low growth – the length between terminal buds becomes shorter, because the tree simply isn’t growing at the same rate. A healthy tree, Martin says, has vibrant “peaks,” meaning the tips of the limbs point toward the sky.

In the case of the tree on Mimosa, the road to recovery starts by gridding the area with a water drill to put aeration holes in the soil. The second step is to infuse the root system with chemicals developed to boost root growth by 200 percent.

“In six to eight weeks, the tree turns color. When it’s green, we know at that point it’s absorbing water,” Martin says.

But he admits that some trees might already be too far gone by the time he’s called to treat them, and he says the jury’s still out on the Mimosa tree.

In the perfect world reflected in the tree ordinance, builders and contractors would take appropriate preventative and protective measures to preserve trees. But Preston Hollow North HOA President Colin French says that’s not always the case.

In an effort to work more closely with builders, the association has been encouraging builders working in the neighborhood to join its ranks. Twenty have signed up so far; five builders refused to join the association.

“My general concern with builders these days is they probably aren’t taking as much care as they should. The builders consider more square footage more attractive to sell than having a few extra trees,” French says.

Lee Marshall expresses similar frustrations about homebuilders working in the area monitored by the Preston Hollow East HOA, of which he is the president. Marshall says he spends a lot of time jogging the neighborhood, and from what he has seen, more could be done.

“Preserving trees is a mixed bag,” Marshall says. “We do see small fencing that protects the root base directly adjacent to the trunk. Less common are the larger perimeter fences.”

Phillip Fristroe says there are a variety of reasons why that’s the case. He’s the president of Phillip Jennings Custom Homes, which builds spec houses in Preston Hollow neighborhoods.

One reason is the city’s enforcement of the tree ordinance, which he describes as “relatively lax.”

“We don’t get a lot of information on it during the permitting process,” Fristroe says.

Still, he’s listening to the neighborhoods’ concerns regardless of the threat, or lack thereof, of legal action from the city. Fristroe says his company makes a concerted effort to preserve trees on the lots they’re building on.

For starters, he won’t buy a home with trees that are too close to the house or that appear to be diseased or unhealthy. And while difficult, Fristroe says he takes great pains to put up fencing as close to the drip line as possible. He admits it’s not always possible to completely protect the trees. Sometimes the lot size, root system and construction plan inevitably lead to some stress on the trees, he says.

Another factor is the opportunity for disconnect between builders and the construction crews doing the work at the site. Fristroe says the best-laid designs and protective measures are never foolproof. He regularly finds the protective fencing he has placed on a site moved or removed by work crews.

“I’m not going to lie. It’s tough,” he says.

In one case described by Martin, a builder came up with a plan to locate the sprinkler system on the edge of the yard to keep from trenching around the roots of a large tree. When he checked back on the progress a few days later, the workers had trenched down four feet and cut nearly every root on the tree – completely disregarding the plans.

Fristroe says despite the challenges, it’s in the best interests of builders to make sure those trees are preserved.

“A house with trees sells quicker. Those without trees are slower to sell. But some people just don’t care.”


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