URBANA — The days could be numbered for what might be Urbana's biggest tree.
A giant, 100-plus-foot hackberry tree near the corner of High and Coler streets has been marked for removal, but a group of residents are hoping they might be able to encourage the city to find another way to secure the rotting tree instead of cutting the whole thing down.
"We call it the biggest tree in the world," said resident Stephen Wald, who was on the phone with the city arborist within 15 minutes of spotting a white dot near the base of the tree while riding his bicycle past it with his 7-year-old son, Jesse.
Well, it's not the biggest in the world — but it's a contender for the biggest in the city. With a trunk diameter of 60 inches, canopy between about 78 and 99 feet and a height over 100 feet, local tree experts would have trouble producing a more massive specimen, Wald said.
"It's our General Sherman tree," Wald said.
Some of its limbs, however, have started to rot, including one that hangs ominously over the nearest home at 312 S. Coler Ave. And on a tree this big, limbs can be, well, as big as a tree.
"It's a giant hackberry, maybe one of the biggest in the community," said city arborist Mike Brunk.
The problems are not necessarily noticeable from the street, but Brunk said it is a matter of time before it becomes a problem.
"We had a tree inventory of all of our trees this summer that pointed this tree out, as well as a number of others, as a fairly high rate of hazard," Brunk said. "It has decay on the upper branch structure of the tree."
That's how it ended up on the removal list. Now residents are trying to get it off, and after a number of phone calls and letters to the city, officials have scheduled a tree commission hearing at 7 p.m. on Jan. 16 to discuss all the options.
Alderman Dennis Roberts said he is hoping the few thousand dollars that would have been spent to have a contractor cut the tree down might be able to go into finding an alternative means of preserving the tree.
"This is a local monarch," Roberts said. "It's an obviously well-known tree."
The tree's age is into the triple digits, though nobody knows for sure how long it has stood, and it has been supported by a cabling system for about 30 years. It has already caused damage once: A 16-inch-diameter branch broke off following a 1990 ice storm and fell into the bedroom of the neighboring home.
City officials added even more support to the tree when that happened.
"The decision was to put two more support cables in it," Brunk said. "The tree's been held together with those support cables ever since."
City officials are trying to preempt the next accident by cutting the tree down, but neighbors have been alerted to the plans and hope to persuade the city to find another way to support the tree. One of the problems is that, at a minimum, limbs will need to come off the tree, and the existing support cables are anchored into some of those rotting branches.
"It would be a big loss to have this visual wonder go," said Richard Mohr, who lives across the street from the tree.
Ilona Matkovszki argues that 80 percent of the tree is healthy — to cut down the whole thing to deal with the 20 percent that is a hazard would be a waste, she said.
"This is a living thing," she said. "It's not an object. It's not a number."
Alderman Charlie Smyth said the danger the tree poses is "significant," but he hopes the city can find a creative way to mitigate the hazard.
Brunk said he's confident the tree is not an imminent hazard and is happy to hold off on its removal until there can be more discussion about it.
"I think this will be a good constructive forum to have open discussion on it," Brunk said. "I'm looking forward to it, and I think that whenever you have a significant tree like this ... that it's great to have the community response to get involved."