An empty plot of land sits at the intersection of Orrington Avenue and Lincoln Street. This land was the home of three more-than-a-century old oak trees, one of which was cut down earlier this month.
City of Evanston officials say they want to be environmental preservationists, yet they continue to fail to put in place the necessary guidelines to block the destruction of valuable trees like these.
On March 9 of this year, Evanston’s Historic Preservation Commission granted developer Joe Balistreri, Vice President of Operations at North Shore Builders, permission to remove one of the historic trees at Orrington Avenue and Lincoln Street, and build a single-family home. A tree service removed the tree, sparking outcries from the neighborhood.
The current Tree Preservation Ordinance protects trees on public property, but doesn’t stop residents from cutting down trees on their own property.
The City’s Forestry Supervisor and Arborist Micheal Callahan said the situation was unfortunate, and demonstrates that the City needs an ordinance to protect trees on private property.
Leslie Shad, co-leader of Natural Habitat Evanston, has been advocating for the oak trees in the Orrington-Lincoln lot for years. The tree that was cut down shared a root system with one of the other heritage oaks, she said. “We’re concerned that taking down the one tree will kill the second tree.”
Resident Ada Yung was also involved in the efforts to save the trees. She attended Commission meetings and spoke up about the value and health of the trees. Yung said she is not opposed to a house being built on that property, and she believes that the developer could have reoriented or resized the house to save the trees. The day the tree was cut down was not a good day, she added.
Yung said the property has been empty since she moved into the neighborhood six years ago. The lot is in a historic district, and the developer required a Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Preservation Commission prior to building a house there. In 2019, the developer first approached the Historic Preservation Commission, but his request was denied because the exterior of the house was not compatible with the neighboring homes, said Historic Preservation Commission member Mark Simon.
When the developer returned this past March with a new plan, the Commission approved it. Another member of the Commission, Stuart Cohen, said the tree was not covered by any part of the Evanston Landmark Ordinance, so the Commission didn’t have any legal right to prevent the developer from cutting down the tree and building on the land.
“I think we were unanimously against taking the tree down, but we had no mechanism by which we felt we could legally prohibit the destruction,” said Cohen. He felt like his hands were tied, he added.
The History of the Orrington-Lincoln Lot
The land bordered by Orrington Avenue, Lincoln Street, Sherman Avenue and Colfax Street used to be a Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management school called Kendall college. The college moved and in 2011, the City approved a plan to divide the land into 19 single family units, according to Resolution 13-R-11.
The Resolution required that the developer at the time, Smithfield Properties, make a minor modification to the proposed subdivision to protect the oak trees. A Tree Preservation Plan attached to the Resolution shows a map of the area, with the trees circled and highlighted in red, green or gray. According to the plan, the green highlighted trees must remain, the red trees would be cut down and the gray trees must remain if possible. The two trees on the empty plot at Orrington Avenue and Lincoln Street were highlighted gray.
Since 2011, when the City approved the resolution to divide the land into single family units, Smithfield Properties sold the land and North Shore Builders took over the development. The lot at the intersection of Orrington and Lincoln remained the last property to be developed.
An ordinance in the works
At a Planning and Development Committee Meeting on May 10, 2021, City staff introduced an amendment to the Tree Preservation Ordinance, expanding its protection to include trees on private property. According to the meeting’s agenda, the amendment, Ordinance 54-O-21, did not pass due to a lack of resources in the Public Works Agency and Community Development Department.
The 2022 budget for the Public Works Agency may provide the department with the resources necessary to support the ordinance, and City staff recommends including an effective date after January 1, 2022, according to the agenda.
Even if the amendment had passed, Shad said the City still wouldn’t be providing adequate protection for big trees on private property. The ordinance protects healthy trees with a 25-inch diameter (20-inch diameter for oaks and hickories) or larger, but a homeowner with a construction project of 600 or more square feet may apply for a tree preservation permit and receive permission from the City to remove a tree this size.
“The issue with that is people are just going to pay into a fund,” said Shad. The ordinance is inequitable, as wealthier homeowners would be much more capable of removing trees, she said. She wished the City could just pass an ordinance that protects large trees without making allowances for wealthier homeowners who can pay their way out.
To receive a private property permit, the homeowner would need to provide a completed tree survey, which could cost between $300 and $1,400 if conducted by a private company. The City would also require the homeowner to either pay into a fund or replace the tree. To replace a tree, the homeowner must purchase enough small trees, whose combined diameter adds up to at least 75% and up to 150% of the original tree, depending on the species. This could mean purchasing and planting 15 or more trees.
Evanston trees play an essential role
Evanston’s oak trees are extremely valuable from an ecological and aesthetic standpoint, said Callahan. They are an important food source, they capture carbon, and they impact property value, he said.
“If we lose trees, we have more people with heatstroke, we have more flooding, we have more issues related to climate, particulates in the air,” said Shad.
These oak trees are irreplaceable, she added.