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City lacks data to support restrictive tree ordinance

Evanston aldermen are scheduled Monday to consider a tree ordinance amendment that would impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in new costs annually on homeowners.

An aerial view of Evanston showing variations in the tree canopy. (Google Maps)

Evanston aldermen are scheduled Monday to consider a tree ordinance amendment that would impose hundreds of thousands of dollars in new costs annually on homeowners.

The goal of the ordinance ostensibly would be to protect trees on private property. But in response to an inquiry from Evanston Now, city officials conceded that they have conducted no studies to determine whether the extent of the city’s tree canopy is increasing or decreasing.

Having a sizable tree canopy provides a variety of environmental benefits — including heat-stress mitigation, carbon sequestration, noise reduction, air and water quality improvement and storm water reduction.

Several cities have adopted programs aimed at increasing their tree canopy. For example, Washington, D.C., in 2013 adopted a goal of increasing its tree canopy from about 37% then to 40% by 2032.

An undated and unsourced presentation on the Evanston city website says 38% of Evanston land is covered by tree canopy.

Evanston’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan calls for a net increase of 500 more trees in the city by 2025, with further increases to 2,000 by 2050.

The city’s existing Tree Preservation Ordinance regulates the removal and replacement of public trees and private trees on large parcels and within planned developments.

The proposed amendments would require that the more than 400 people requesting building permits each year obtain a topographic or tree survey at a cost per project ranging from $300 to $1,400. Assuming the mid-point cost of $850, that would mean $340,000 in added expenses for property owners each year.

City staff also estimates that processing all the permit applications would require adding a full-time staff position to the city’s Public Works Agency.

As a result of that, staff is recommending that if the City Council adopts the ordinance, it postpone the effective date until after the start of next year and make it continent upon the addition of sufficient new staff in the 2022 budget.

The expanded regulation of trees on private property has been pushed by Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who’s term on the Council expires Monday.

A version of the ordinance was tabled at the March 9 Council meeting last year and a related report was accepted and placed on file at the June 8 meeting.

The U.S. Forest Service suggests that cities conduct Urban Tree Canopy Assessments to determine how the tree canopy is changing in a city.


Update 3:15 p.m.: Thanks to a tip from a reader, we’ve learned that the claim mentioned above that 38% of Evanston’s land area is covered by tree canopy, appears to be based on a 2010 Chicago Region Tree Census conducted by The Morton Arboretum and the USDA Forest Service.

A map of data from that study for the region shows that Evanston has a higher percentage of tree cover than most neighboring areas, with Rogers Park at 24%, West Ridge at 25%, Lincolnwood at 28%, Skokie at 27% and Wilmette at 45%.

More detail on the 2010 data for Evanston is also available.

A second edition of the tree census, using 2020 data, was issued this year on Arbor Day, April 30. The new study so far only presents data at the county level.

It indicates that in suburban Cook County the tree and shrub canopy cover has increased from 29% in 2010 to 30% in 2020, and that across the whole seven-county region it has increased from 21% to 23%.


Update 5/11/21: The City Council’s Planning and Development Committee voted 6-1 Monday night to table the proposed amendment until the Sept. 27 meeting, but have staff present a progress report on the issue at the committee’s second meeting in July.

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