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January 20, 2013

Terre Haute residents fighting to save trees in front of their home

TERRE HAUTE — It’s pretty rare for someone to call the Terre Haute City Engineer in tears, but when it happens, it’s usually about city plans to cut down a tree.

People can become very emotional about the trees near their homes, said Chuck Ennis, city engineer, as he sat in his office in City Hall. Trees grow family memories like leaves. They provide beauty and shade, and serve as a home for squirrels and birds.

But, trees also can become diseased, unstable and eventually die. If they are on city property and pose a danger to the public, Ennis said, they must be cut down and removed.

And that’s the plan for two medium-to-tall trees — a sycamore and a maple — standing in the tree row along Mariposa Avenue near 25th Street, just outside the classic Tudor home of Allen and Cheryl White.

The Whites learned earlier this month the two trees were targeted to be felled and the wood removed. They didn’t call City Hall in tears, but they have taken significant steps to try to save the pair of trees.

The trees “just make the house gorgeous,” said Allen White, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Rose-Hulman. Looking at them from the street, the trees present a sort of natural entrance into the White’s front entrance. The trees also provide shade and protection from the weather, Allen said.

Root of the problem

Early one morning in December, the Whites were surprised to see trucks from a Terre Haute tree removal company parked outside their house. They had not been notified the trees, which are on city-owned property, had been placed on a work order for removal. The person responsible for that order, Sheryle Dell, is a licensed arborist and the Terre Haute Urban Forester, a position within the city’s department of engineering. As forester, Dell’s job is to maintain the health and vitality of the city’s “urban forest,” a job that includes inspecting trees and sometimes ordering their removal if she deems them hazardous to lives or property.

In having dead or dying trees removed from city tree rows, Dell said her goal is to protect the public, shield the city from lawsuits and maintain the health of the city’s tree “canopy.” In most cases, Dell responds to calls from residents who want a tree removed by the city. But, in the case of the aforementioned trees along Mariposa, Dell spotted them while driving and marked them for removal on her own.

“We’re not cutting down healthy trees,” Dell said. The trees near the Whites’ home present a hazard, she said. Pointing to a photograph of one of the trees, the sycamore, Dell notes a split in its trunk, an area of rotted wood higher up, and a heavy branch that extends toward the sidewalk and the Whites’ home, which she believes makes it unsafe.

“This tree is not structurally sound,” she said, noting that she evaluates trees in accordance with criteria spelled out in the International Society of Arboriculture publication, “Tree Risk Assessment,” which is the industry standard, she said.

But the Whites are not convinced. Allen is a mechanical engineer and said he knows a thing or two about structural integrity. Last summer, the trees “leafed out” beautifully, he said, adding he believes they deserve at least another season to see how well they “leaf out” this year.

“That’s all I’m asking,” he said.

The Whites also asked a local agricultural expert to assess their trees. That person declined to be interviewed for this story. The Whites said, however, that the expert told them the trees in question were not unlike others found in their neighborhood.

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