Evanston’s Environmental Board voted Thursday night to have city staff draft an ordinance that would impose steep penalties for removing large trees from private property.
“Make incredibly steep fines,” Ald. Clare Kelly (1st) said, addressing the board. “I want to do whatever is necessary to reduce the removal of these incredibly valuable trees from the community.”
“Prohibit taking down any trees” above a certain size, Kelly added.
But Kelly told the board the initial version of the ordinance should not cover single-family, owner-occupied homes.
That exclusion, she said, would be needed to win quick approval of the ordinance from City Council, saving some trees immediately.
“Then we can work on amending it in an appropriate way later to include owner-occupied single-family homes,” Kelly added.
Emily Okallau, the public services coordinator in the Public Works Agency, said the original staff proposal included protection for trees on single family lots because without including them it would “not significantly protect the majority of trees on private property in Evanston.”
Instead, she said, it would mainly deal only with trees on sites that were slated for development.
Trisha Connolly, a 2nd Ward resident who has opposed many development projects in town, said she feared that with a new tax increment financing district in the 5th Ward there will be a great deal of new development there. She hopes the tree ordinance will be adopted to restrict it.
Connolly said at one potential development site, on Jackson Avenue near Emerson Street, “it was devastating to see what happened” last weekend when several trees were cut down.
But Environment Board member Tom Klitzkie, a co-owner of Nature’s Perspective Landscaping, said the trees that had been removed on Jackson were “trashy trees” that were mostly junk and wouldn’t have deserved protection under an ordinance.
Okallau said under the law homeowners cannot be denied the privilege to enjoy their properties and their economic value. “You can’t necessarily block people from getting a reasonable amount of enjoyment out of the property.”
That, she suggested, would put a complete ban on removing big trees at risk of a successful legal challenge.
Environment Board member Jerri Garl said she was concerned about an approach that would let people pay a substantial fee to get a permit to take down a big tree.
“From an equity standpoint, Garl said, that means “if you’re wealthy enough you can cut down all your trees.”
Evanston, while it has a greater percentage of its land covered with trees than most neighboring communities, also has some areas — downtown and in lower-income neighborhoods — that have less tree cover than its more affluent residential areas.
That equity issue around the distribution of trees led Berkeley, California, to launch this month a program funded by the city and by state grants to plant more trees in the parkway in lower-income sections of the city.
Berkeley has had a moratorium in place on the removal of large Coast Live Oak trees since 2006, but has yet to adopt the comprehensive tree preservation ordinance that was intended to trigger the lifting of the moratorium.