Oakland Township officials are looking into extending the easement of the  historic Schuette oak tree at Letts and Rush roads from 15 feet to 60 feet,  after a home was built across the street from the tree last summer,  prompting concern from township residents and officials.

Oakland Township officials are looking into extending the easement of the historic Schuette oak tree at Letts and Rush roads from 15 feet to 60 feet, after a home was built across the street from the tree last summer, prompting concern from township residents and officials.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Committee forms to safeguard 500-year-old tree in Oakland Township

Township residents needed to serve on committee

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published March 8, 2023


OAKLAND TOWNSHIP — There’s an oak tree at the corner of Letts and Rush roads in Oakland Township that is over 500 years old, and officials are hoping it will stand tall for many more years to come, despite recent actions that may have put the tree in danger.

“We would like to see that oak live forever, we hope,” Oakland Township Supervisor Robin Buxar said. “We know nothing lives totally forever, but we are doing our darndest.”

The tree, Oakland Township Historic Preservation Planner Barbara Barber noted, is over 500 years old.

“There are people that say that tree has been there 500 years. The Grant Chamberlin family used to live there,” she said. “That was one area in the township where you could collect Indian arrowheads like crazy. … This tree was saved. It was never logged, so people have always thought maybe it was a sacred tree. Why was this one tree spared? We don’t know all the answers, but it’s still very interesting.”

The Township’s Historic District Commission maintains the health of the historic Schuette oak tree, which was listed in American Forests’ National Register of Big Trees in 1973.

Rush Road, which runs next to the tree, actually bends around the trunk of the now over 21-foot-diameter and 120-foot-tall historic tree.

“The tree has just grown and grown and grown, and it’s in the road. On the one side it has compensated for that hard-packed dirt to survive, and its root systems are going underneath the road and getting nutrients,” Barber said. “It’s not the best situation, but the tree has adapted to the road being there because it’s been there.”

Over the years, the township has designated special protections for the tree, including listing the tree as a historical district — called the Grand Champion Schuette Oak Tree Historic District — in 1979. A Schuette oak is a hybrid of a swamp white oak and a bur oak.

The protective easement offered within the historical district currently extends only 15 feet around the tree, which Township Clerk Dave Mabry said is not nearly large enough to protect the tree’s roots.

“I was kind of surprised to see that the easement is only 15 feet right now,” he said. “When I looked it up online, for oak trees, it needed to be as much as three times the foliage.”

Township concern over the 15-foot easement recently came to light after a home was built across the street from the tree last summer.

“It was a new home development that was just on a parcel of land, so it didn’t go through any kind of Planning Commission meeting or Zoning Board, it just went through the Building Department,” Barber noted. “By ordinance, they are required to be set back 50 feet from the center of the road, but 50 feet is not a lot. The grand champion’s root system can go 100 feet or more, because it can travel beyond the canopy.”

When construction crews started digging the foundation of the new home, it alarmed various nearby residents, who were concerned about the tree’s roots.

“We have a sign saying, ‘If anybody hits this tree or there is any damage, please call the HDC office.’ The problem was, the residents did not call the HDC office — because we would have been freaking out just like they were — they were going through planning, and it wasn’t on the Planning Commission’s docket, so there was a little bit of a miscommunication,” Barber said.

The good news, according to Barber, is that when the Historic District Commission finally got involved, the driveway to the home had not yet been poured, so the homeowners and the developer agreed to change its location.

“It is buying the tree some more room — it’s about 100 feet from where the driveway is,” Barner said. “Otherwise, it would have been 70 feet, and that would have been bad, because the foundation was also close, so we were worried about the root system, because the tree is old and it already struggles because it is so close to the road.”

During construction, Barber said, some of the tree’s roots — well within the tree canopy — were cut by Consumers Energy when they were connecting the new home to the current gas line.

Tracy Wimmer, a spokesperson for Consumers Energy, said the company is committed to being a good steward of the state’s natural resources.

“Often when new construction or maintenance work is conducted we facilitate environmental impact studies to ensure our processes are planned and executed, in collaboration with the appropriate local and state authorities, in a manner that takes into consideration all environmental concerns,” she said. “We understand the concern about the health of the tree and its root system, and in the case of this construction, we followed all permitting rules and construction statutes, as well as our own internal processes for this type of project, and connected the gas line for this new home to a gas main that has existed safely across the street from the tree since 2001.”

Historic District Commission members and other township officials were frustrated with the location of the connection — which they say was done as close to the tree as possible — and were fearful the tree’s roots were permanently damaged.

“We are concerned about it,” Barber said. “We are really hoping that it will leaf out and continue to improve and not decline, because with damage like this, it won’t just die this summer, but you will see it start declining, and we would be devastated, because everybody just loves it.”

To care for the tree and, hopefully, help it rebound from any damage, the township has enlisted the help of Owen Tree Service.

“Owen Tree Service has already done emergency deep root fertilization, and they trimmed off all the dead wood, so this spring, it should start leafing out good, and then we will hit it with another deep root fertilization,” Barber explained.

To help ward off any issues with construction around the tree in the future, the township’s Historic District Commission recently asked the Board of Trustees to establish a Historic District Study Committee to research an easement expansion around the Grand Champion Schuette Oak Tree Historic District.

The Historic District Commission is hoping to extend the easement to 60 feet, pending legal opinion, public input and the costs involved.

“I think it’s a good idea to have a Historic District Study Committee,” Historic District Commission Chairman Dave Phillips said.

On Feb. 14, the Oakland Township Board of Trustees passed the motion unanimously.

“I (am in favor of) trying to do something to make sure that the Schuette tree isn’t endangered, because I think we were told there might be some damage … to the root system,” said Oakland Township Board of Trustees Treasurer John Giannangeli.

Mabry agreed.

“If we want it to be preserved, it sounds like (the easement) does have to be expanded,” he said.

The new Historic District Study Committee will include at least five people — at least two individuals who are owners of a historical resource and at least two, but no more than three, who are members of the Historic District Commission. Officials said members of the Historic District Study Committee will be appointed to three-year staggered terms, which expire on Dec. 31 of the year of expiration.

“Now, we need to have people who live in the township volunteer to be on it,” Barber said. “So far, I have two people, and they are both commissioners, so we need to get three other people.”

Those interested in serving on the Historic District Study Committee are asked to contact Barbara Barber at (248) 651-4440 or bbarber@oaklandtownship.org before April 1.

“As we move forward and a study committee is selected or appointed, then we will move forward with their decisions of what they think a possible easement should be, and contact all the homeowners, and it will probably have to go back to the Board of Trustees for a public hearing,” Barber said.

The homeowner for the property could not be reached for comment by press time.

For more information, visit oaklandtownship.org or call the Oakland Township offices at (248) 651-4440.