Village Parks and Recreation Director Tim Cronin likely didn't expect the reaction he got from the council when he proposed implementing a new shade tree policy that would force homeowners to take ownership of all trees on the street scape.
According to Cronin, the three village workers tasked to do tree maintenance are set to retire at the end of the 2012. Given fiscal constraints in the village, Cronin pitched a "unique" opportunity to force property owners to be responsible for the upkeep of trees in the right-of-way and sidewalk.
Under the conceptual plan, the village would require homeowners to trudge through a permit process at the Engineering office to do any pruning, trimming, and replacing of dead trees on the street scape. Outside of an arborist issuing the thumbs up or thumbs down on any homeowner plans, as well as the permit handling and a property maintenance worker handing out tickets to force compliance, village involvement would essentially be nil.
"The village could see significant savings," Cronin said.
But savings is not what Deputy Mayor Tom Riche saw in this concept.
"I think this is government rum amok," Riche shot back in apparent disgust to Cronin, remarking–loudly–that he believes the village does need a long-term plan to deal with the "terrible" state of its trees. This, he said, is not it.
"We can't even take care of the permit process that we've got in town now let alone start a whole new layer of bureaucracy . . . I don't want to get a permit, I don't want to require every homeowner to get a permit to go out there and snip a little branch off the tree that grew off the tree."
Village Manager Ken Gabbert defended the concept plan.
"We're talking about trees that make the quality of life, the visual impact of Ridgewood," said Gabbert. "If someone did want to, even though its on their property to cut it down, we're saying: 'No, that's a protected tree.' If they want to cut down a dead tree and plant a new tree, that's fine. That's still part of the approval process."
According to Gabbert, the intent is not to add more government regulation. Rather, it's "government protecting the quality of the whole street and why those trees have to be there."
Mayor has problems with responsibility aspect
Mayor Keith Killion, a self-proclaimed 'tree hugger,' found troubling aspects to the plan, which would essentially model itself after the village's sidewalk ordinance.
"You forcing me to replace a tree that I'm going to have to maintain," Killion said, "it goes against my grain."
Liability, safety issues
Councilman Stephen Wellinghorst, an attorney by trade, said he favors plans that remove liability from the village–which he said was a result of decades of lawyering. The trend, he stated, is to shift the liability onto the homeowners.
"One of these trees coming down could just wipe out whole families," which he said represents a major safety concern, as well as a liability to the village.
However, he too had "concerns" with the plan and pressed Cronin to provide fine and permit figures, which Cronin could not. Cronin said he'd have to consult the Village Engineer on permit fees, but sidewalk fees range from $25 to $200.
Councilwoman Walsh said the village should be concerned with finding a way to maintain the canopy.
"I think it is a responsibility of them [homeowners] – if you remove a tree, put it back in," she said, which drew argument from Killion. Walsh questioned how much maintenance was needed in terms of financial commitment, drawing a "it's a slippery slope" response from Killion.
Alternate ideas, resident response
Not impressed with the plan presented, Riche had his own ideas.
"Let's come up with a better plan and let's come up with a way to fund it," Riche said. He suggested that the village possibly add staff to the tree crew to take down right-of-way trees for a fee. "Maybe down the road we have a tree crew of five, not three...because we've got a revenue source."
He continued: "And at the same time we do that, Mr., Mrs. Resident, we plant a new one and it's part of the fee we charge for the whole property. That would be different."
Killion suggested bringing the village attorney into future discussions on shade tree matters.
None of the residents during public comment supported the conceptual plan presented.
"We cannot neglect the trees that are already between the curb and the sidewalk," resident Roger Wiegand said, adding new trees shouldn't be planted there. "We need a tree department...and we should probably maintain that department so they can maintain the trees properly."
"I think the key situation you've got here is unless you adopt a policy that mandates, not incentivizes that a tree be planted if it's removed, you could change the entire character of this community in 15-20 years," remarked resident Boyd Loving. He reminded the village council that some homeowners won't want the responsibility and "might not give a darn."
Resident Mike Sedon suggested there be something of a shared responsibility between the village and homeowners, resembling a buy-back program. He supported Deputy Mayor Riche's suggestion, adding there need to be incentives for homeowners to replant trees.