Evanston could double the number of trees it plants each year for $115,000. But City Council voted Monday night to hire a tree cop for about that much money instead.
The new city inspector would police private property, seeking to prevent homeowners from cutting down healthy trees — despite city staff conceding they have no data about how often that happens and that they haven’t bothered to ask local arborists for information that might provide the answers.
Staff says the Village of Wilmette, which adopted a similar ordinance two years ago, has had no requests for tree removal permits since its ordinance was adopted.
Evanston’s Environment Board has been pushing for years for the city to assert control over trees on private property, and it’s co-chair, Wendy Pollock, urged council members Monday night to approve the ordinance.
Public Serves Coordinator Emily Okallau tells Evanston Now the city currently plants 300 to 400 trees for the $115,000 it spends annually on new trees for public property.
New staff to enforce the ordinance is expected to cost nearly $150,000 next year.
A 2021 study by the Chicago Region Tree Initiative showed that Evanston has 39% of its land area covered by the tree canopy, compared to an average of 28% for Cook County as a whole.
As for neighboring areas, Wilmette had 41% of its land covered with tree canopy, Skokie 25%, Lincolnwood and West Ridge 26% and Rogers Park 27%.
But the report showed significant variations by neighborhood in Evanston — with generally less tree cover in lower income areas.
By focusing only on preserving existing trees, the new ordinance does not address those wealth-based disparities.
The tree initiative report says the highest share of “plantable space” in Evanston — areas that could have tree cover but don’t — occurs in utility, park and institutional land.
Okallau says the city “works to expand the tree canopy as much as possible” but that a variety of factors, including “property owners not wanting trees on the parkways adjacent to their homes” limit those efforts.
The new ordinance would apply to all trees with a diameter greater than 6 inches at a height of 4.5 feet above the ground. The tree initiative report indicates that amounts to roughly 78% of all the trees in Evanston.
Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) and Ald. Tom Suffredin (6th) both voiced concerns about the extent to which the ordinance encroaches on private property rights, but in the end only Suffredin voted against the measure, which was approved for introduction 7-0.
It is scheduled for final adoption at the Council’s next meeting on Sept. 11.