Sandy Furano moved back to her native New Orleans in 2021 after decades in California and bought a 100-year-old home in Carrollton. She restored it to its former, understated elegance. The renovation, as she saw it, was a way to preserve the past and add to the charm of her historic neighborhood.
So, she was devastated earlier this month when a contractor she’d hired to fix her broken sidewalk accidentally cut several roots of the century-old live oak that stands in front of her Willow Street home.
Since the tree is on public property, she called the city’s Parks and Parkways Department and they came to inspect. The roots were severely damaged, the arborist told her. The tree would have to come down.
Furano wasn’t so sure. She hired her own arborist, who examined the tree and said he thought it could be saved. With dueling opinions, Furano asked for more time to study the tree’s condition before felling it. Word quickly spread. Neighbors mobilized. District Council member Joe Giarrusso got involved.
At the last minute, the tree’s date with the buzz saw was postponed while tree experts determine if keeping it alive is safe.
“We see this as a victory,” said David Marcello, a nearby resident who recently formed Tree Canopy NOLA, a network of neighborhood associations that is seeking to work with the city on a process to protect and save more of New Orleans’ iconic live oaks.
“Our main goal is to have advance notice whenever a mature, old-growth tree is at risk,” Marcello said. ?“Neighborhoods need to come together and save these trees.”
Live oaks are undoubtedly among New Orleans' defining characteristics. About one out of every five trees in the city's parks or on public rights of way are live oaks, according to a 2019 study that said the city had about 104,000 trees overall in those areas.
There's no comprehensive estimate of the number of trees in New Orleans that includes the ones on private property. But a combination of age, carelessness and climate change are taking their toll on the majestic trees. Since July, the city has lost at least a dozen live oaks, including one that fell in Jackson Square, severely injuring a teenage tourist.
Six others were cut down on Napoleon Avenue by a private contractor who didn’t have a permit.
Marcello formed Tree Canopy NOLA in the wake of those events. He was concerned about a live oak on his street that an Entergy crew was trimming back from the power lines. He tried to talk to the trimmer in the bucket truck but said he was effectively waved off.
The incident occurred just hours after a live oak had fallen across South Carrollton Avenue, crushing a car, blocking traffic, and knocking out power to the neighborhood for hours.
Though the South Carrollton incident was an emergency and the situation on Marcello’s street was a routine trimming, taken in combination with the other recent tree calamities, Marcello felt something had to be done.
Tree Canopy NOLA is a loose network so far and includes Maple Area Residents, the Carrollton Area Network, the Garden District Association, Parks for All, the University Neighborhood Association and the Mid City Neighborhood Association.
In October, the group reached out to Parks and Parkways Director Mike Karam to set up a meeting. ?The objective, Marcello said, was to encourage the department to give neighborhood groups advance notice before work is done on mature live oaks so there can be an “informed dialogue.”
“That way, everyone will know ahead of time what is going on and can make sure trees are trimmed responsibly,” he said. “In the long run, it will make them healthier and keep them standing longer.”
A process for collaboration
Parks and Parkways is in charge of the city’s “urban forest,” the live oaks that populate the parks under the department’s jurisdiction, as well as those that line the rights of way along city streets? — the ground between the sidewalk and the street.
The department regulates any work that is done on or around the trees and requires a permit of anyone who cuts, prunes or removes a live oak, including public utilities. If a tree has to be removed, the decision must be made by a licensed arborist. If it’s a large, old tree, two arborists must sign off on the decision.?
The department also requires that an arborist be on site when sidewalk removal and installation work is done in certain proximity to live oaks.?
"Unfortunately, not all residents comply with these mandates resulting in significant damage to our trees,“ Karam said.
In a written statement, Karam said the department regularly meets with neighborhood groups and individuals to address issues or concerns, and notifies the adjacent resident or property owner if a live oak is being removed from the right of way in front of their house.
But he said the department does not have an expanded notification policy that involves entire neighborhoods “nor is one being considered.”
He declined to elaborate.
During the meeting with Tree Canopy NOLA, Karam told the group that giving advance notice to area residents could be burdensome and that the agency didn’t have the capability to notify associations, according to Marcello.
Karam also told the groups he was open to partnering on solutions and continuing to meet, Marcello said.
An ounce of prevention
On Willow Street, Furano said she feels badly about what her contractor did to the tree and accepts responsibility. She is hopeful the tree will survive but if it has to come down, she said she will not fight the decision and will pay to plant a new live oak in its place.
Besides better coordination and communication with the city, part of the mission of Tree Canopy NOLA is to engage and inform the public about the live oaks, Marcello said.
That includes educating them about how to protect and preserve the trees so accidents like Willow Street don’t happen in the future.
(Editor's Note: This story has been revised to clarify that Parks and Parkways is a department, and that it requires a licensed arborist be on site when repairs are made to sidewalks adjacent to live oaks.)