Madisonians anxious about damage to trees from street reconstruction

By Kristin Czubkowski
Madison, WI (September 24, 2009)- Madison resident T.R. Loon knew the road construction in front of his home on Spaight Street was coming this summer. He had even gone to one of the sparsely attended public hearings in the two weeks before Christmas 2008 to hear the city’s engineers explain the project in more detail, one of about three people to take that opportunity. So, when he saw the construction equipment move in once the weather warmed up, he was hardly surprised.

But when that same construction equipment cut into the roots of the nearly half-century-old tree in front of his house, forcing the city’s forestry division to come in within a matter of days to take it down, he was taken aback. “We had a 47-year-old basswood tree, and I got to count the rings when they cut it down,” he says.
The tree, which provided shade over Loon’s entire house and porch as well as privacy from nearby Orton Park, was classified along with several others on the block as “collateral damage” from the contractors hired by the city of Madison to perform the street reconstruction, much to the dismay of Loon and his neighbors.
Now, a dedicated contingent of Madison residents is working together to ensure that contractors are held to explicit standards for tree preservation, particularly in Madison’s “urban forest” on the isthmus, where trees are often older and harder to replace.
The group met with city staff from the engineering and forestry divisions Wednesday night to begin brainstorming ways not only to spell out these standards, but also to make sure contractors have an incentive to follow them.
Christy Bachmann of the city engineering department says Madison currently has a set of guidelines for preserving trees, but adds that contractor compliance with those guidelines is sometimes an issue. To ensure that contractors take them seriously, she says a task force of engineers and forestry staff will review the standards by the end of this year and also look into adding monetary penalties for failing to follow them.
“The specifications were changed (recently), the sidewalk program had the most changes,” Bachmann says. “One thing that wasn’t added is we haven’t had some type of penalty, which is what I think everyone is saying we should do now. … The best way to get someone’s attention is to put a fine to it.”
Dean Kahl of the city’s forestry division says less than two dozen trees see unexpected removal each year due to things like collateral damage from contract work, and that the city usually knows when a contractor’s work requires tree removal and can notify residents accordingly. Still, despite the low number, he says, “every tree in front of someone’s house is a big deal.”
City forester Marla Eddy says there are currently nationally accepted methods for evaluating the value of a tree based on its type and condition. Madison has recently begun computerizing its tree records, making it easier to track the condition of the city’s trees and to put a value on them. She adds that in Minneapolis, the city has created a separate memorandum of understanding between contractors and the city that spells out rules for tree preservation independently of a project’s other details. The memorandum must be signed before contractors begin work, making them responsible to the city.
Another model city that Madison staff highlighted Wednesday is even closer to home in Milwaukee, which has had a program in place for 30 years to preserve its urban trees. One staffer, Jim Kringer, is a national speaker on the subject of tree preservation. Kringer is well-known for some of his bolder tactics, including spray-painting tree roots with dollar amounts on streets that will see roadwork, but he has also spoken about the relatively simple things that cities can do to preserve trees.
In particular, reducing sidewalk widths from six to five feet in Milwaukee has minimized damage to trees in the terraces between sidewalks and the road and given them more room to grow. The city has also at times curved or elevated a sidewalk to avoid damaging an older tree. Milwaukee also forbids mechanical root cutting, requiring any cuts to tree roots to be done surgically when necessary.
“One thing Larry Nelson once said to me is, ‘Your neighborhood has a high level of conflict between sidewalks and trees,'” Ald. Marsha Rummel, who helped organize Wednesday’s meeting, says of the city’s recently retired chief engineer. “He’s right, but the trees lose.”
Adding some policies similar to what Milwaukee uses could lessen the impact of sidewalk reconstruction on sidewalks, she adds.
Bachmann says, however, that certain types of projects, such as widening streets or adding sidewalks where there have been none before, may require more tree removal than other types of road reconstruction. In those instances, it’s important to improve the notice to landowners about when and why the removal will happen.
One project that has caused concern among residents is the future reconstruction of Williamson Street. Bachmann says the city has begun asking some property owners on the street for two additional feet of land to expand terraces and will limit the amount of sidewalk reconstruction, but adds that 40 to 50 percent of the street’s trees may be seriously affected by the project. “I don’t want you to think our policy is to remove trees,” Bachmann says. “It’s a very unique project- I don’t think I’ve ever had a project where it’s such narrow terraces and such large trees.”
One particular cause for concern with any project that affects trees, Rummel says, is that current city policy often prevents Madison from replacing the older trees with the same species and that the canopy provided by older ash and maple trees will likely never return once lost.
“We live in an older neighborhood, so the trees are these incredible creatures, huge living things, and people love their trees,” she says. “When they replace street trees, they’ll never replace the same trees. They’re going to pick street trees that are smaller and a different kind of tree. They won’t shade, they won’t add the same kind of value as the trees now, which is cooling and shade and this majestic quality.”
Eddy says the city currently does not replace ash trees because of the risk posed by the emerald ash borer, and that in other cases when older trees conflict with power lines, they are replaced with smaller ones such as Cleveland select pear trees, serviceberry, Amur maple and crab apple trees. The policy hasn’t been popular with residents, but it’s a widely accepted method of finding the “right tree for the right location,” she says.
As the city takes steps to improve its policy toward protecting trees, Loon adds that low staffing in the city forester’s office may mean that residents pay particular attention to construction projects in their neighborhoods. “Citizens have to be responsible,” he says. “Marla would protect these trees if she could, but there aren’t enough people. Contractors are protecting their bottom line and they do things as fast and cheaply as they can. Residents have to take action.”
Ultimately, the goal should be prevention of tree loss rather than remediation, he adds. “There have to be some penalties. But if the contractor has been assessed a fine, it wouldn’t replace my tree,” he says. “In my lifetime, there will never be another tree that size in front of my house.”
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The Capital Times- Madisonians anxious about damage to trees from street reconstruction