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.
Eye on Liability
From the city’s point of view, the case is basically closed. Based on her risk evaluation, Dell has determined the trees are a hazard, meaning they must now be removed, according to a Dec. 18 letter from City Attorney Chou-il Lee, who wrote to the Whites in response to their concern.
“The City has no desire to expend taxpayers’ money for the removal of healthy trees,” Lee wrote. Once a tree has been deemed a hazard, based on international risk assessment standards, he wrote, failure by the city to address the problem — assuming it has the resources to do so — would open it to possible liability.
To address this concern, White said he offered to essentially free the city from liability if the trees fall on his home. However, Lee wrote, White “cannot relieve the City of liability” if someone else were to be injured or their property damaged should part or all of the trees topple into the street or on the sidewalk.
“While you may be willing to accept the liability if the trees/limbs were to fall on your property, the City cannot accept the liability if the trees/limbs [were] to fall within the right-of-way,” Lee wrote.
“I understand that completely,” White said of the liability issue. However, he still believes the trees deserve more time before being taken down. “All I’m saying is, let’s re-evaluate.”
Keeping up appearances
As Dell noted, it’s far more common for her to disappoint homeowners who want a tree removed than to meet an objection when a tree is tagged for removal. Once in a while, residents want a tree cut down essentially because they are tired of raking leaves, Ennis said. Those requests are rejected, he added.
City officials budget $200,000 annually for tree removal, Ennis said. A large part of the urban forester’s job is to prioritize how that money is spent. That means only going after trees on city property that represent a hazard.
“It’s a balancing act,” Ennis said.
Dell said the city removed 432 trees last year while another 384 new trees were planted. The city’s total urban tree “canopy” — meaning trees in areas of public right-of-way — totals about 17,000 trees, not including trees in city-owned parks.
Maple trees more than 70 years old make up more than half of the city’s urban forest, Dell said. And that can take a toll on the city’s sidewalks. Maples and other large trees were planted in the city’s tree rows in the 1930s. Maples were an understandable choice because they grow quickly. However, Dell said, they were also a poor choice for narrow patches of ground such as tree rows because their roots often lift sidewalks, creating new liability issues for the city.
“Almost every sidewalk repair is tree-related,” Ennis said. The City of Terre Haute typically spends $500,000 each year on sidewalk repairs.
As larger trees deemed too large for tree rows die off, they are being replaced with smaller trees better suited to narrow areas between streets and sidewalks, Dell said. The city is not, however, removing healthy trees in order to replace them with smaller ones, she said.
Turning over a new leaf
After a more than monthlong reprieve, which included much back-and-forth between the Whites and city officials, the two trees are still standing, awaiting a final decision from Mayor Bennett.
Reached Friday, Bennett said he wants to better understand the technical side of tree evaluations before making a final call.
“I’m just waiting on a detailed report from engineering, the forester, to help me understand what the criteria are as these things come up in the future,” Bennett said. As for the trees on Mariposa, liability remains a concern and “I don’t want this to drag on forever. I just want to see some data,” he said.
Whatever happens to the trees, the city has made some policy changes as a result of concerns expressed by the Whites. Attorney Lee, in his letter to the couple, stated the city apologizes for their lack of notification and that officials are “implementing a better notification process.”
In an email to the Tribune-Star, Dell acknowledged that the situation on Mariposa Avenue has resulted in a new procedure to notify homeowners of pending tree removal. Beginning later this month, a “Street Tree Obituary” will be attached to trees tagged for removal within 45 days. The “obituary” outlines benefits to the neighborhood and community the tree provided in its years of existence.
The “obituary” notices on trees will place dollar values on energy savings, property value, weather resistance and air quality from each tree. The Whites cited each of those benefits as values they gained from the trees near their home.
“The trees really do help make the house,” Allen said, standing on the sidewalk in front of his home. “All I’m asking for is another season to check them out.”
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@