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Saving Short Pump’s Famed Oak Tree

The fate of a cherished decades-old oak tree in the heart of Short Pump has some members of the community worried, as the construction of a new martial arts studio occurs directly in front of it.

Some citizens in the area have become attached to the tree,which is more 40 years old and has a trunk 48 inches in diameter, and are hoping the new development in the Downtown Short Pump shopping center won’t damage it.

“It’s a tree that we’ve all enjoyed for years,” said Glen Allen resident Joyce Major, one of many Short Pump residents who have viewed the tree as a landmark within the community. “The new development is blocking the tree from view so most people won’t be able to see it, and it just can’t be healthy for the tree."

The tree was known to former residents – and now many current residents in the area – as the “alligator tree,” mainly because its base resembles the head of an alligator and is admired for its nearly perfect symmetry.  

Master Cho’s Tae Kwon Do and Martial Arts, a 17,000-square-foot, two-story facility, is currently under construction on 0.77 acre between the tree and Pouncey Tract Road, near Bowl America. It's expected to open in the spring.

Despite the concerns of some in the community, Henrico County planning officials and the owner of the martial arts studio believe they've taken extra care to ensure the tree's longevity.

“We fought to keep the tree there,” said Three Chopt District Planning Commissioner Tommy Branin, whose district includes the site. The tree sits on land that has been owned by a local developer for 50 years. Officials from the planning commission met with the developer last year to request that the tree be saved, Branin said. The county previously had no official control over the fate of the tree because it was located on private property with no development conditions or restrictions that related to the tree.

Though the site already was zoned for commercial use, the Planning Commission had to approve a plan of development for the project. The commission negotiated proffers – development agreements – with the owners of the martial arts facility and their representatives in order to help save the tree from any possible harm during or after development, Branin said. Officials undertook other efforts, as well.

“An arborist came prior to construction and did tests and checked the health of the tree throughout the project,” Branin said. Safeguards have been put up around it for protection, and an arborist will return after construction is complete to check the status of the tree.

Henrico County Recreation and Parks director Karen Mier recommended in a letter to planning officials in August 2009 that the tree be protected, noting that it could be recommended for a heritage tree protection designation in the future.

“Developers have taken the proper precautions needed in order to protect the tree,” said David O’Kelly, assistant director of planning for the county.

Not everyone in Short Pump realized that the tree was being encroached upon by development.

“This is the first I’m hearing of it,” said Norwood Nuckols, the Association for the Preservation of Henrico Antiquities liaison for the Henrico County Historical Society Executive Board. “We would be concerned; we don’t want [anything] to happen" to the tree.

Alana Cho, owner of the martial arts studio, has planned to save the tree from the very beginning.

“We designed the building around the tree, and signs are up around it stating that it will not be harmed,” said Cho. The facility will have large windows built in all around the facility with views of the tree, according to Cho.

An orange flexible fence has gone up around the tree for protection while the construction is underway. When Cho purchased the property several years ago, there was nothing there but an empty parking lot, land and the tree.

“We didn’t want it to die so we’ve irrigated it all summer,” said Cho. Before settling on the Pouncey Tract location, Cho had looked at several other spaces including Town Center West and West Broad Village shopping centers but was turned down by developers.

“They were upset about the number of people that would be coming to our building with the amount of parking spaces available,” said Cho. She stressed that she’s happy people are concerned about the tree and indicated that protecting it was a key part of her decision to open a new location on the site.

Despite the precautions being taken to protect the special landmark, Major wondered what's to become of the region in the years ahead.

“Does development trump everything?” she asked.
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