West Annapolis residents and an alderman are trying to save two 80-year-old trees in danger of being cut down to make way for a new commercial and residential space in the neighborhood.
The two large mature trees, one a chestnut oak and the other a pin oak, are located at 101-103 Annapolis Street, a planned mixed-use development project currently before the Annapolis Planning Commission. The property owners, MRE Properties, want to build a two-story residential and commercial building at the corner of Annapolis Street and Giddings Avenue. But to do so, they say they need to remove the trees.
“We’re not just taking down trees to take down trees; we’re reinvesting and redeveloping this project and property that will be anchored by a restaurant hopefully,” said EJ Rumpke, who co-owns the property with David Williams, chairman and founder of the marketing firm Merkle, Inc.
But those who oppose the trees’ removal say cutting them down would hurt the community’s character, goes against the city’s tree canopy goal and could set a precedent to allow future developers to remove additional mature trees along the street. The trees also represent an environmental benefit to the city, like providing carbon sequestration and a natural stormwater management system, said Bevin Buchheister, chair of the Annapolis Environmental Commission, who testified on the project at a recent Planning Commission meeting. The commission left public comment open on the project following its Dec. 3 meeting and is expected to make final deliberations Dec. 17.
“We really want to see those trees saved,” Buchheister said. “We think they can be saved.”
Rumpke said his team looked at preserving the oak trees but opted to replace them with 21 new trees on the property. The minimum replacement required by City Code is eight. The developers see the project as a long-term investment in the neighborhood where they live, he said.
Those hoping to save the oak trees have suggested moving the proposed building back a few feet to allow room for either the existing trees, which have significant canopies or for replacement oaks that would have space to grow. While moving the building would cut into a planned parking lot at the back of the property, the change would avoid setting a precedent for future redevelopment to allow construction closer to the road, said Alderman Rob Savidge, D-Ward 7, a staunch environmental advocate and the chair of the Environmental Matters Committee.
He favors the redevelopment project if “done right,” Savidge said, but plans should be redrawn to preserve the two trees and require constructing the building further back.
Annapolis resident Chrissy Holt asked the commission to prioritize maintaining the canopy and urged the developer to conform their plans to the trees rather than the other way around. Holt ran for the District 30 Maryland Senate seat, losing to now Sen. Sarah Elfreth, D-Annapolis.
“We don’t get a second shot,” Holt said. “There are no do-overs when you take an 80-year-old tree down.”
Tyler Balderson, an arborist for Bartlett Tree Experts, reviewed both trees last month and found them “in fair condition.” But due to issues such as paved driveways near the roots and a suspected bacterial disease on the pin oak, he recommended removal and replacement with new trees.
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A separate review by Annapolis Arborist Brian Adams on Dec. 2 had similar findings. Construction could shorten the trees’ lives from up to 20 years to less than five years even if the new building were moved back, he said. Adams did offer the caveat that the chestnut oak could be saved with some site design changes but wrote in a Planning and Zoning report, “I do not see a way to provide enough protection during construction to preserve these trees for the long term.”
Adams added that developers’ plan to replace the two oaks with small cherry trees was “not reasonable” and should instead be replaced by “large, canopy trees.”
In response to feedback, the developers are proposing planting larger American yellowwood trees and a series of willow oaks along Giddings Avenue. Rumpke added that part of the plan to remove the old trees is meant to avoid future hazards if the trees die. He pointed to a similar situation at a nearby property he owns, 706 Giddings Ave., where a tree was preserved but then died after the development was complete.
Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, who represents the neighborhood, said his constituents are “very much in favor of the project by and large.”
However, they are “very concerned” about the loss of shade along Annapolis Street “and want to see that preserved if at all possible,” he said.
Rumpke and Williams, who both live in West Annapolis, founded MRE Properties in 2017 and have been involved in redevelopment projects across the city. They have several in West Annapolis, including one at 100 Ridgley Ave. and the juicery Rutabaga set to relocate to 4 Ridgley Ave.
Another MRE property with a planned restaurant space at 106-108 Annapolis Street could begin construction early next year, Rumpke said.