The tree on North Squirrel Road is older than just about anything you can think of to compare it to when you try to show how old it is.

When the Civil War started, the sprawling black walnut was 152. When quill pens scratched the first signatures onto the Declaration of Independence, it was 67. When George Washington was born in 1732, it was already old enough to vote.

Five years ago, an expert from the Michigan Botanical Club estimated that the tree was 300 years old.

Now some of its admirers are hoping it can survive 2015.

The tree is hale. It's hearty. It's a source of shade, nuts, awe and pride. And it's in a future construction zone, about 400 feet south of Dutton Road in Auburn Hills.

Come spring, a $3 million project will add a center turn lane to a two-mile stretch of two-lane roadway north of Oakland University.

Depending on which of two leading proposals the city council adopts at a meeting Dec. 1, the tree will either reign over the proceedings, or be chopped down to make room for more traffic.

Don Hughes, a Chrysler engineer who lives one street west of Squirrel, delivered a petition at the last council meeting with 356 signatures: Keep your chainsaws off our tree.

Late Monday morning, other supporters gently hung signs from it. Northbound drivers see, "I am Auburn Hills." The southbound message pleads, "Please don't cut me down."

At city hall, city manager Thomas Tanghe conceded, "It is a heck of a tree."

Furthermore, he revealed, "I grew up on a nursery. We were a family of tree farmers in Shelby Township."

So there's hope. But the friends of the black walnut tree are somewhere between anxious — and shaking like a leaf.

Looking for a win-win

Seven of them gathered in Anne Doyle's bay window sitting area early Monday.

Also in attendance at her currently horseless 10-acre horse farm were her two dogs. Three wild deer grazed out back, inching toward the bird feeder.

Doyle, a retired Ford executive, has lived across from the tree for 24 years. She's a newcomer: Elisabeth Rohrmaier has been looking at it through her front window for 40.

When Rohrmaier moved in the road was dirt, and cars were so rare their German shepherd barked at each one. Now several small subdivisions and five churches share the stretch from Walton Road to Dutton, and rush-hour travelers have more time than they'd prefer to admire the scenery.

"We're really hoping this can be a win-win," said Doyle, a former city councilwoman. "None of us are trying to stop growth."

Least of all on the black walnut.

Measured in '09 at 17-feet around and 67-feet tall, and more impressive outward than upward, it has officially been designated a Michigan Big Tree. By ordinance, Auburn Hills favors large trees, and correctly deems them irreplaceable.

But progress can take root quickly.

One plan spares tree

One proposal has the center lane halting 200 yards short of Dutton. Since the intersection already has a left turn lane and it leaves the tree unharmed, that's the one the preservationists are fighting for.

The other stretches the center lane all the way to the Orion Township line at Dutton.

Federal money for roads doesn't come along every year, Tanghe pointed out, "and the ideal improvement is to maintain three lanes."

At the same time, he said, the numbers crunched so far suggest that a few hundred feet without a center lane won't markedly impede traffic.

He's reserving judgment until all the data is in. Hughes, Doyle and company, meantime, are branching out: they have a Facebook page called Save the Squirrel Road Big Tree, they're circulating more petitions, and they're hoping a swarm of pro-tree residents make themselves heard at the next council meeting.

"This tree," Doyle said, "is our oldest citizen, by far."

Unfortunately, it can't vote.

(313) 222-2671


Read or Share this story: