Aldermen create Urban Forestry Advisory Board to tackle tree-related issues

The panel can’t order homeowners to do anything, but could suggest ways to defray the cost of tree trimming, removal and replacement or how to find money to support Chicago’s under-funded Bureau of Forestry.

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Downed tree along Northwest Highway in Chicago’s Edison Park neighborhood.

This tree fell in the Edison Park neighborhood during a storm.

Sun-Times file photo

Dying trees on private property that the city can’t take down without a court order, even though they could fall, damaging adjacent homes, streetlights and power lines. 

Elderly homeowners who can’t afford to take proper care of their trees.

Trees adjacent to alleys that homeowners “build a fence around” and claim they’re the city’s responsibility.

Those and other problems now fall to a 13-member Urban Forestry Advisory Board created Monday by the City Council’s Finance Committee.

Chicago has been without a Tree Advisory Board for more than a generation — since the 1990’s panel created by former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a self-described tree lover, “kind of dissipated,” according to city forestry chief Malcolm Whiteside.

The newly-created tree board will be purely advisory. It can’t order beleaguered Chicago homeowners to do anything about the trees on their property.

But Finance Committee Chairman Scott Waguespack (32nd) argued that the 13 members —which will include the Chicago Park District superintendent, the city’s chief sustainability officer and four city department heads — could make pivotal suggestions about ways to defray the cost of tree trimming, removal and replacement and find money to support Chicago’s under-funded Bureau of Forestry.

“A lot of those private trees — the properties are owned by senior citizens who can’t afford to take some of those trees down or trim ’em,” Waguespack told his colleagues.

“This might be a way to help coordinate ideas or efforts around helping seniors. … We could work with private corporations to do reduced-cost trimmings for seniors.”

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) said “thinking outside of the box” is desperately needed to help homeowners who “don’t have the ability to pay for” tree care.

“Working with outside entities, especially those insurance companies that will be able to help us with the money up-front so it will be a lot cheaper for them [and] a lot cheaper for our residents, is a great idea,” Scott said.

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) asked what could be done about trees on private property that pose a “great risk” of splitting during severe storms and falling “on the city side.”

Whiteside acknowledged there are “trees in real bad decline” that the city is “not addressing.” But, he added, he is “so busy worrying about” trees on the public way that “we just don’t look at trees in peoples’ backyards and, eventually, they will fall in the alley.”

The Forestry Bureau chief said he typically needs a court order to go on private property. And even then, they first give homeowners 10 days to explain “what the plan is” to mitigate the danger and wait another 30 days to go to court, only after those who ignore the warning are ticketed.

“I try to do that strictly for trees that are dangerous,” Whiteside said. “I don’t want to drag ’em through court for trimming trees.”

Austin said she understands the city’s reluctance to seek court orders against homeowners. But some homeowners in her Far South Side ward “need to go to court.” Otherwise, they will “blame the city when something happens,” she said.

“We all love trees. But when it’s a storm and it falls in the electrical lines, nobody wants to touch ’em. Everybody comes up with an excuse as opposed to a solution. Then, when something happens and the power goes out, now we’re gonna remove the tree,” Austin said.

Under questioning by Austin, Whiteside acknowledged he is “very short-staffed” and could always use more tree trimmers. His “dilemma” is the lengthy training required. 

“Trees are dangerous. It’s not garbage. … Anybody can push a cart or pull a lever. But to get up in a bucket to trim a tree, it takes skill and time,” he said.

Ald. Derrick Curtis (18th) said when he first heard about the Urban Forestry Advisory Council, he was “totally against it.” That’s because he has “hundreds” of trees infected with the Emerald Ash Borer that were taken down by the city and “a lot still standing” that need to come down. He was apparently afraid the board’s attention would be diverted elsewhere.

But after listening to Monday’s debate, “I can understand where that advisory board can go,” perhaps in tackling the problem of trees in alleys.

“We know that trees don’t grow in alleys. But what property owners have done is build a fence. They’ll go right around that tree and make it look like that tree is a city tree in the alley,” Curtis said.

“We definitely have to … let the property owners know that this is not the city’s tree. You are responsible for this tree.”

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