Evanston City Council looks to pass ordinance to preserve trees

Evanston lawmakers are poised to expand the north suburb’s tree protection program onto private property for the first time ever in an attempt to protect the city’s urban tree canopy, officials said.

The City Council on Aug. 28 voted seven to one in favor of amending the city’s tree preservation ordinance, which if given final approval on Sept. 11, will require residents to pay a fee and get a permit before removing certain sized tree from their property.

“This ordinance has been in the works for years,” the city said in an email. “The Climate Action & Resiliency Plan was passed in 2018 and it is an action item in this plan.”

The amended ordinance states that anyone planning to remove a tree from their private property with a trunk diameter of more that six inches will have to pay $75 to go through the city’s tree preservation review process then get final approval from city council. The amended ordinance is slated to go into effect June 1, 2024.

“The new ordinance acts as an added protection for trees,” the city said. “This is not a requirement on the Arbor Day Tree City USA application, but it is an extra bonus.”

Matthew Codder, co-chair of Evanston’s environmental board, told the council that upward of 80% of Evanston’s tree canopy is on private land all without legal protection.

“We all know the myriad of benefits that trees have for biodiversity, for human health and to the climate,” he said. “More innately all of us can feel the deep interconnectiveness of the trees in the ecosystem we live in with human society. We know that those connections extend beyond property lines. I’m filled with hope with the possibility of extending our collective protection to five times as many trees in Evanston.”

But some expressed concern about legislating what residents can or can’t do on private property and questioned whether or not there’s an ongoing issue with residents removing trees from their properties.

“I don’t know that this is a problem,” said 6th Ward Alderperson Thomas Suffredin. “I understand it’s likely to pass but is this a demonstrated problem?”

Suffredin was the lone vote against the legislative changes.

City staff said they do not have any data on how many trees are removed from private property.

Alexandra Ruggie, Evanston’s interim corporation council, said the city is permitted to make regulations that impact private property “as we’ve done many times.”

“But we have to have a reason behind it,” she added. “There has to be a legitimate reason why the restrictions are being proposed. I think the ordinance spells out those reasons and the city’s well within its governmental right to pass this ordinance.”

2nd Ward Alderperson Krissie Harris voted for the amendment but expressed concerns over extending the city’s tree protection ordinance to private property.

“We hear all the time we’re too involved and now we’re encroaching on private property so that is of concern,” she said. “I’ve been emailed, called and I worry about is that really our right? I understand tree canopy and the heat. I respect and understand that … we need that tree canopy.”

4th Ward Alderperson Jonathan Nieuwsma said the $75 cost to go through the tree preservation review process is fairly low especially when compared with the cost of removing large trees. He also said Evanston’s ordinance closely resembles a similar ordinance in neighboring Wilmette.

“We do have amble precedent that this type of ordinance works in our region and in our neighborhoods, so I look forward to passing this,” he said.

According to the email from the city, the fee associated with this ordinance will help to cover staff time and the administration of the program.

“Cutting down or damaging trees does have a cost to our environment and the benefits of having an urban canopy,” it said. “Those costs aren’t always tangible.”

It said the ordinance will be enforced by a Tree Preservation Coordinator who will be in charge of issuing permits with plans for the city to hire a seasonal employee to help get it started.

Evanston’s urban tree planting program has a budget of $115,000 annually and the city plants 300 to 400 trees per year on public property with that budget, the email said.

“The Tree Preservation Ordinance will be on the website in the coming weeks,” it said. “Outreach planning is underway.”

Brian L. Cox is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.

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