Pine straw debate heating up

RALEIGH Three years ago, a raging fire wiped out three dozen townhomes in Raleigh. Then last month, another blaze destroyed three homes and damaged four more.

Raleigh fire officials said pine straw helped speed both blazes.

Now, Raleigh's mayor wants the state's toughest restrictions on pine needles, which fall from the state tree. The state tree is the long leaf pine and the pine needles make for cheap and easy landscaping all over the state.

After the townhome fires, three other Triangle towns banned pine straw within 10 feet of apartments, condos, and townhomes. But Raleigh, where the fires actually took place, did not.

"We did under do it three years ago," Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said. "Let's be sure we get the right answer this time."

He says the right answer is a totally ban on pine straw with 20 to 30 feet of all homes.

Meeker even suggests forcing homeowners to remove existing pine straw, but some council members are already needling Meeker with prickly questions.

"I hope we don't over-reach on this," Raleigh City Council member James West said.

"We're going to say we can't have a pine tree within a certain distance of a house," Raleigh City Council member Charles Crowder added. "How does a resident deal with that?"

"I didn't mean to suggest that we eliminate pine trees," Meeker countered. "What I was suggesting was that we have a restriction on pine straw."

Pine straw landscapers actually think Chapel Hill got it right with their ban of pine straw within 10 feet of attached housing.

"As many pine trees as we have in this state, we have had very few problems with it," said Ronnie Horne with Commercial Pine Straw. "You just have a few perfect conditions that have caused this problem."

But one council member asked after a pine straw ban, what's next - cigarettes?

"These fires were not started by the pine straw," Raleigh City Council member John Odom said. "The pine straw was set on fire by? Smoking materials has been a common cause of the fires. So maybe we just stop smoking?"

Pine straw and landscaping trade groups, as well as the state's AG Commissioner, Steve Troxler, have all contacted city council members, because they think Raleigh's mayor is going too far.

The Pine Needle Growers Association claims pine straw is a $100 million industry which employs thousands.

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