NIMBY has jumped a fence or two in recent years. The familiar refrain “Not in My Back Yard,” which was adapted a few years ago to “Not in Your Back Yard,” is now at the Civic Center, where City staff members are crafting an ordinance to protect trees of a certain age and type on private property.
Other communities have laws to protect trees on private property. Lake Forest was one of the first municipalities in the Chicago area to approve a tree-protection ordinance, having done so in 1988 in response to the “chain-saw massacre” of hundreds of trees on an estate owned by a movie star.
In Evanston, trees are protected “as a valuable community resource,” according to the ordinance that covers public trees and trees on a parcel of property two acres or larger that is slated for development.
The ordinance says trees merit City protection because they stabilize topsoil; prevent erosion; assist in stormwater management; help reduce air and noise pollution and provide habitats for birds, insects and other wildlife; reduce energy consumption; and enhance property values.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, referred the matter of preserving “heritage” trees to the City’s Preservation Commission earlier this year, but the commission members sent back word they thought such an ordinance was not within their purview.
First, they said, a tree preservation ordinance should be Citywide, whereas the Preservation Commission has more limited jurisdiction.
Second, they said that, while they felt confident assessing buildings, their knowledge did not extend to trees.
At the Sept. 9 meeting of the City’s Planning and Development Committee, aldermen discussed the possibility of a preservation ordinance for privately owned “heritage” trees, similar to the one for public trees now on the books.
City staff presented information about ordinances enacted by other communities, such as Pasadena and Menlo Park, Cal.; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore. Trees with cultural, horticultural or historic significance have been deemed worthy of protection, as have trees of a unique size or age and those that serve as “landmarks” in a community.
In trying to hammer out what attributes a heritage tree in Evanston might have, aldermen suggested several of the factors used in other ordinances.
Evanston Environmental Services Coordinator Paul D’Agostino described variables in height, diameter and species that seemed to make a single definition of a heritage tree elusive. Staff members will return to the Planning and Development Committee in the next few weeks with a proposed ordinance.
The ordinance will have to delineate under what circumstances a tree on private property merits governmental interference. The City already has some authority over private trees, said Mr. D’Agostino.
A City ordinance declares trees with Dutch elm disease or emerald ash borers “official nuisances” and allows the City “to tag and force their removal,” he said, adding, “We do require removal of diseased elms within 30 days, mostly because of the threat of root grafts.”
The “Ongoing Activity Measures” of the City’s Public Works Agency found in the current budget document shows that in 2017, 12 parkway elms were removed due to Dutch elm disease; 10 were estimated to be removed in 2018 and another 10 removals projected for 2019. Figures for “other trees removed” were 560 in 2017, 550 in 2018 and 500 in 2019.
The City estimated it had planted 800 new park and parkway trees in 2018 and 700 this year. Even so, City figures show that only 30% to 35% of the number of trees removed in any year are replaced by new trees within that year.
Owners of property with one or more elm trees have the opportunity to purchase elm-tree insurance through the City. About 300 property owners purchased the insurance in 2019, according to the City.
The City can also declare a tree on private property an “imminent danger” if it is dead or dying and poses a threat to other people’s property. In cases such as these, the City has the authority to tell the owner to address the problem, and the owner must act within 30 days of having received the notice.
Mr. D’Agostino said he expects any new ordinance would exempt from preservation any diseased, dying or dangerous tree.