Richmond's urban forest was one of the big casualties of Hurricane Irene's winds and rain, with the city's forested canopy — and a few houses beneath it — left with a number of newly installed skylights after the storm passed.
But is it possible that an arboreal murder-mystery lurks among the city's oaks and maples?
"We did see where before the sidewalk was not level — up and down," says Pete Stratiou, who owns a West Marshall Street property that was heavily damaged by a fallen 100-year-old tree. "Maybe if they did cut the roots, maybe they did make the tree weak. Did the city do it? I don't know."
If Richmond workers did chop roots, it's a mistake — or maintenance compromise — common in cities that try to balance shade with sidewalk safety, says Susan D. Day, an assistant professor of urban forestry at Virginia Tech. Cutting roots can topple a tree, just as removing part of the base of a wineglass can knock it over.
James A. Jackson, Richmond's director of public works, confirms that sometimes sidewalk maintenance does involve removing tree roots, but adds that sidewalk repair crews often work with an arborist from the Urban Forestry Division "doing all that can be done" not to damage trees. But, he notes, "there are times when portions of a root might be ground down or a non-supporting, nonessential root might be removed."