Evanston aldermen Monday rejected a last-minute plea to force residents who want to remove a tree from their yards to pay the city for the privilege of doing so.

But members of the Human Services Committee invited Paul Janicki, a local architect speaking on behalf of the Preservation League of Evanston, to bring up the idea again once the City Council has acted on a tree ordinance targeting developers.

The committee voted to send the proposed ordinance to the council for action.

The ordinance would require that builders of all planned developments and any subdivision on parcels of two acres or more submit plans to minimize the harm to trees from the project and replace trees that are harmed. It also provides fines for violations of the rules.

Janicki said individual homeowners should have to get permission from the city to take down what he called “legacy trees.”

“Every other North Shore town has a provision like that,” Janicki said, adding that such trees need to be protected not just against developers but also “average everyday homeowners” who might want to put a deck on the back of their house but have a tree standing in the way.

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, called Janicki’s proposal “a good suggestion.”

“A tree ordinance ought to be as comprehensive as possible,” Jean-Baptiste added, but expanding it, he suggested, would have “a lot of implications.”

He noted that the city already can force homeowners to remove diseased trees from their property — at a cost to the homeowner than can exceed $3,000, depending on the size of the tree.

“We also have to balance the issue of private property interests,” he said, “and that’s not what we’re trying to address at this point in time.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said Janicki was bringing up “a whole other issue — a very appropriate discussion to be having.”

But she said she didn’t want to hold up the current ordinance to have that discussion.

Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, said she supported the ordinance before the committee, but might not be as inclined to back one that targeted private homeowners. 

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Protecting legacy trees

    The issue is not ‘paying the city’ to take down a tree on private property, but to:

    1. Provide some level of protection for trees of a certain size/age that ought not be subject to the whim of a homeowner that may be younger than the tree itself. These trees provide shade and natural beauty to the neighborhood beyoind the boundaries of the individuals property lines. We all remember the story of ‘Mr. T’, who cut down scores of trees on his Lake Forest property just because he wanted a better view.

    2. Close a loophole in the ordinance that a developer or homeowner can exploit. For example, a homeowner can cut down that 200 year old oak that would be in the way of extending his kitchen out another 20 feet BEFORE he applies for a permit. Or a developer, about to purchase a large property in an estate sale, can ask the trustees to take down the 5 large trees that would fall under the ordinance BEFORE he purchases the property.  

    3. Finally, the issue is not ‘paying the city for permission to take down a tree’, but to require some public body the chance to review the merits of the request BEFORE the ax takes it’s first swing.

    The city council needs to make sure that this ordinance is both reasonable and comprehensive by looking at language that offers some level of protection to trees of a stately character. If we are to call ourselves a ‘Tree City’, this is the least we should do.


    John Kennedy

  2. Why does the council waste their time?

    What?  Another law that limits what you can do on your own property?
    As if the zoning laws in Evanston aren’t enough!  We have zoning, building and the new energy law – now trees?
    Aside from the enormous issue of private property rights – which are slipping away daily in our so called "free country", this must have costs to the City in terms of enforcement.  Does Mr. Janicki have any idea how much work is involved in enforcement of a law such as he is proposing?
    Maybe he should find out how many staff people are responsible for checking on each and every tree ”situation".  I am sure that there is a story behind each tree that would need to be sorted out (i.e. it would take up lots of time, which of course means lots of $$ in staffing).
    And what if the removal is already done?  The owner says the tree was ‘sick’ or a storm made it dangle precariously over their house – once it’s gone, who can say?
    Sounds like an enforcement nightmare.  Another question is who would do the enforcement of this law? Surely not the building department since it has been cut so severely during this recession that they cannot even keep up with inspections of safety and building codes (I heard from a neighbor that it is taking over a week to get an inspection now).
    How about the Parks Department – they have tree expertise.  It is clear that they can barely keep up with the trees in the parks and the parkway tree maintenance is on a 4 year or more cycle of trimming. 
    Sounds like another case of prioritizing things that cannot be paid for in this City.  Now, more than ever, the City government must stick to the basics:  garbage collection, street maintenance, water and sewer utilities, and police and fire – period.
    1. Your point on costs

      Hi Barb,

      When the Preservation League and several other organizations worked through some of these issues, we were very conscouse about costs to the city. For example, unlike a tree ordinance proposed several years ago, a major ‘survey’ of existing trees is not called for. Rather, this proposal envisions that a committee made up of fellow citizens who are not being paid be the main point of review. This is a passive ordinance, in that we assume people will come to the city for permission (who will then pass off to this citizen board). If the citizen is not aware of the ordinance, the major tree trimming companies will let them know.

      The idea is that there can be a fine associated with a legacy tree removed without permission – this adds some teeth, but note that I used the words ‘can be’.

      As for private property rights, a 300 yr old oak tree in my neighbors yard (it is 4 feet in diameter) was almost taken down be a developer because ‘he wanted the yard to be wide open’. Now this tree provides my yard with shade, cools my house in the summer, and provides me and others with a wonderful view of how grand mother nature can be. Luckily, the developer listened to myself and the neighbor on the other side and did not take the tree down. But he could have since our ‘Tree City’ does not have any ordinance to protect these living things – that were here long before us and will be long after we leave this earth.

      I can sacrifice some ‘private property rights’ to acknowledge this inherited responsibility.

      1. Whose rights are you sacrificing?

        First of all, I’m the last person that would remove a tree from my property, but this proposal rubs me the wrong way.  It seems to me that you’re more than willing to sacrifice your neighbors "private property rights", which tends to be easier than sacrificing your own.   Your neighbor’s tree seems to be providing benefits far and wide to people that didn’t have to pay for it or it’s maintenance, and they also won’t be on the hook when the city demands the tree is removed.  If your neighbor’s tree got sick and was ordered to be removed are you going to kick in some money?  As people that enjoy so many of the benefits of this large tree do you and your neighbors help to pay for annual trimming/maintenance costs? 

        Maybe there is some way for the city or a community organization to purchase the "removal rights" on some of these very large trees, similar to the purchase of development rights for farmers in rapidly urbanizing areas. 

        Also, I hope the tree’s age was estimated at 300 years and no one actually took out a core to determine the age, as that can provide a pathway for insects and disease.  300 is pretty old for an oak tree in such an urban environment and tree diameter (generally measured 4.5 feet above the ground) is not an accurate way to measure age.

    2. Why does the council waste their time?

      Dear Barb ? I understand your concern about property rights. I usually am on that side of the fence. I believe that our natural environment (trees) are a joy for all of us in a community where people gravitate to because of this beauty. Perhaps you should look to our near west suburban communities where there are very few large trees. Not very attractive.

      It is interesting to note that the town of Lake Forest, where the most conservative, property rights crowd resides, there is the most comprehensive and strict tree ordinance in the region, if not the U.S. So some people don’t seem to mind this sort of ordinance.

  3. Protecting legacy trees – on private property

    First, let me state that I greatly appreciate and value trees and what they do for the environment (naturally cooling our buildings and our yards while soaking up carbon, etc.) and the majesty and beauty that they provide each and every day of the year.   They truly should be valued and I believe that they are.  It is just that (reasonable) people have different priorities. Add to that the fact that our (many) laws contradict each other.

    An example may be trying to add onto your small 2 bedroom/1 bath home that has a magnificent tree directly where the zoning rules allow you to expand.  What do you do?  We, as the reasonable people that we are, could agree that surely the zoning board in their wisdom would allow a variation to accommodate a great tree.  Think again.  Not if to save the tree, the front yard would be drastically reduced, or some other zoning calamity. Reasonable people disagree about priorities all of the time.  Ask someone about this who has been turned down in a zoning variation that they sincerely believed was a very reasonable request.  Or another example of "reasonable" citizens, consider someone that wanted to replace their windows to be energy efficient but was told by the Preservation Board (also a very "reasonable" group of fellow citizens who are not paid) that they could not because the steel framed windows in their landmark home were to be treasured and should not be replaced.  They should ‘add storm windows to improve the energy efficiency’ was the response of the reasonable people on the Preservation Board.  Those would have been very sensitive indeed! Again, the point is that "reasonable" citizens that are making these rulings.   It is positively maddening when  you are on the receiving end of such a "unreasonable" decision.  Also, this ‘free’ group of volunteers on the Preservation Board and on the Zoning Board both have full time staff members on the City payroll dedicated entirely to support of these boards.  The boards may be made up of volunteers, but it is the paid staff that do an incredible amount of the leg work to get the items prepared for review, visit the sites, meet with the citizens and answer their many questions about these rules, etc..  Then there is the delay to the projects while the reviews are taking place (more time/money for the homeowners).  So, it is a nice idea that this would be done without cost to the City, but it is just not realistic.

    Lastly, I would like to say that, as Mr. Kennedy mentions, Evanston looks considerably better than many surrounding communities, largely attributed to the beautiful legacy of trees (and some great architecture and lower light levels than found other nearby cities).  But, this has happened all of these years without any such law as is being proposed.  The reality is, as much as Mr. T’s property makes a great horror story, people such as that are clearly few and far between.  The Mr. T. thing happened in 1987!   1987.  And, I would add that I would rather put up with one "Mr. T." incident than the daily and continued loss of our freedoms in this so-called "free country" that we live in. 


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