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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Tree removal is underway at the historic Asheville Municipal Golf Course, and the number of trees on the chopping block is down from 157 to 111 following action by area environmentalists and neighbors, many of whom protested the removal of the white pine, oak, cherry and more, some of which are centuries old.

Nancy Casey, a 15-year Beverly Hills resident and environmentalist, was among those that urged the city to reconsider.

Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, floated the initial plan to remove 157 trees at a December Urban Forestry Commission meeting, an action staff says is necessary for essential renovations to the course, improvements to golf play and longevity of existing trees.

This number was already a decrease from initial U.S. Golf Association tree evaluation and report, which suggested 500-plus trees for removal.

Previous coverage: 157 trees recommended for removal at Asheville Municipal Golf Course

Environmentalists weigh in

Following the meeting, in deference to community concerns, Corl brought in a third Tree Risk Assessment Qualification certified arborist to review the course, and walked all 18-holes of the course with several community groups, including representatives from MountainTrue, a Western North Carolina environmental nonprofit, and Casey. Mark Foster, city arborist, also reviewed the course with what Corl called a “tighter scope.”

In these examinations, some trees came off the list entirely, some were added and others were set for pruning only, a list that rose to 83 from the initial estimate of 38.

“I like to think we found a really good middle ground between saving as many trees as we could, while still moving forward to help the course as it is intended, as a golf course,” Corl said.

Related from Asheville Citizen-Times: Higher rates? Fairway improvements? Public meets new Asheville Muni Golf Course operators

The tree removal and pruning project was bid and awarded by the course’s new operators, Commonwealth Golf Partners II – Asheville LLC, who selected Asheville-based Green Outdoors Landscaping to take on the project with a $143,151 contract.

The sprawling, 122-acre course in the East Asheville neighborhood of Beverly Hills was designed by Hall of Fame golf architect Donald Ross and opened for play in 1927. It is home to the longest running Black-owned and operated professional tournament in the country.

According to a Feb. 4 emailed update, tree removal, thinning and replacement began early in February. Corl anticipates it will take another two or three weeks.

Already, he said, standing out on the greens, you can see a difference in the sky — which, theoretically, will help other elements on the court: like grass growth and line of sight for players. Shading, water access and drainage are all affected by the trees.

More details for trees scheduled for removal can be found here.

Casey said she felt “grateful” for the reduction in trees slated for removal.

Chris Corl, the city’s director of Community and Regional Entertainment Facilities, walks above a sinkhole that formed on the Asheville Municipal Golf Course on October 2022. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm/Asheville Citizen Times)

“I do wish we could have done more, but I’m very pleased that the city would work with us to come to … more of a compromise,” she said. “These are treasured city property trees and I hate to see any of them go.”

Josh Kelly, public lands field biologist with MountainTrue, had a similar message. Between his initial visit to the course and the final plan, “there were a lot of improvements made,” he said, noting he was happy with many of the city’s changes.

“I do think the city really heard us, and overall it was a good iterative process that led to the best trees really remaining on the golf course,” Kelly said.

Of factors that led to removal, he said largely or entirely dead crowns, fungal disease, hazardous leaning or damage to the course were all considered.

In what he called an “interesting old wood lot,” he estimated some of the trees are over 200 years old.

“It’s a very historical course, I do think a lot of the trees add historical value to the course,” Kelly said. “A cultural and natural history.”

While on a tour of the course, Kelly used an increment borer to extract a wood tissue sample from one of the medium-sized white oak and estimated it to be 120 years old.

“It was that expertise, especially Josh, his expertise, that really helped … turn the tide. Going tree from tree was really the thing that needed to be done,” Casey said. “I thought this was a really good example of the community coming together with a better compromise.”

Corl said the project intends no net loss of total long-term tree canopy, and will replant, both on and off property, to meet city ordinance requirements.

Pope Golf response to Asheville lawsuit over $340K in unpaid fees
Commonwealth Golf took over the course on Oct. 1 in a seven-year license and management agreement with the city, after 10 years under former operator Pope Golf.

In October, the city filed a lawsuit against Pope, alleging deteriorating course conditions which have allowed the greens, fairways and tees to fall into neglect, destruction of property and $340,830 in outstanding lease payments to the city.

The complaint was filed with Buncombe County Superior Court Oct. 4, over three months after the city attorney’s office sent a letter to Keith Pope, CEO of Pope Golf, based in Sarasota, Florida, advising that the city intended to initiate litigation over the past due lease payments, some of which have been accumulating since 2016.

The course itself has seen “steadily degrading conditions” over the last several years, according to the city, and at its center are significant stormwater drainage issues, which Pope said in September is the reason behind not only the course conditions but his termination of lease payments.

Pope Golf submitted an answer to the complaint in December, which denies almost all allegations and calls for the court to dismiss the complaint.

The document reiterates Pope’s belief that issues, including the drainage problems, were within control of the city, and outside control of Pope Golf.

“Plaintiff was also aware for more than three years prior to the filing of this suit of such issues of Defendant Pope Asheville’s position regarding the same and that payment should be off-set for such issues, but the Plaintiff did not take required action to mitigate or remedy such issues,” the document reads.

City Attorney Brad Branham told the Citizen Times Feb. 16 that as both the city’s complaint and the responsive answer have now been filed, the parties will move into a discovery phase whereby they have the option to seek various forms of evidence production.

“Although it has not yet occurred, the Court will issue an order in the near future setting a deadline for the parties to engage in mediation prior to proceeding towards a potential trial,” Branham said via email.

“At this time, in keeping with the City’s policy not to comment on active litigation, I will only say that the City remains committed to its position as described in the Complaint and we will proceed through the litigation process as dictated by the Court.”

Other ‘muni’ news

— In its Feb. 14 consent agenda, Asheville City Council approved a $96,180 contract amendment with McAdams, a Durham-based civil engineering firm, for stormwater design services at the golf course. McAdams did the initial stormwater assessment of the course in 2019, bringing its total contract amount with the city to $123,480. Corl said design work will likely take 60-90 days, and then the project will be bid out. He does not anticipate any stormwater work beginning until late summer/early fall.

— In December, the city received a $30,000 grant from the Donald Ross Society Foundation for use in development of a master plan with golf architect Kris Spence. The plan will be used as a guide for future improvements to the course and for reference by the stormwater design team. It will likely be completed by March 1, Corl said.

— Efforts to form a “Friends of the Muni” group, which would fundraise for the course’s rehabilitation and open up volunteer and program opportunities at the course, are still underway. Corl said the group is moving forward with formal formation and is in process of becoming a 501c3 nonprofit.

— Work within the clubhouse will begin the week of Feb. 13, with painting, new flooring throughout and new fixtures in the restrooms. Updated furniture has been ordered and will be installed upon delivery with anticipated completion in March or April 2023.

Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.