A $4,000 bill, two dead trees and no one taking blame
Here’s a whodunit right here in Tree City USA:
Who killed the 57-year-old silver poplar trees in front of Janet Holley’s house on Blake Avenue? Was it a city contractor? A “random, phantom tree trimmer?” Or was their demise from natural causes?
Critically, who’s going to pay for the funeral?
Our story begins Sept. 16, when Glenwood Springs’ code enforcement officer wrote to Holley saying that she had a month to remove dead branches from the two trees, which are rooted in the parkway, the strip of public property between the sidewalk and street.
It was soon determined that the trees actually needed to be removed, which began Holley’s battle with City Hall.
It’s Holley’s contention — and two tree experts, including the city’s current contractor, agree — that the trees died because of bad pruning, which made them susceptible to disease.
Holley said the city did the trimming — that she never hired anyone to trim the trees. The city also denies having the trees trimmed, though, as readers will see, this disagreement gets tricky.
It matters because on Nov. 18, Holley was told in a letter from city Parks and Recreation Director Tom Barnes that she would be assessed $4,150, and if the trees weren’t removed by Jan. 8, the city would contract for the work and place a lien on her home.
“Per the municipal code, the adjacent property owner has responsibility for the care and maintenance of trees planted in the right-of-way. The city is not obligated to absorb the removal cost, and it sets a poor precedent to do so,” Barnes wrote.
Making an exception would be a major break with policy carrying costly implications, city leaders say.
The trees were taken down late last week. No lien has been filed on Holley’s home as lawyers work to hash it all out.
Holley, a 67-year-old retired teacher of limited means who has lived in the home since 1982, took her case before City Council on Thursday and has a legal services attorney seeking to have the city pay.
“I love living in Glenwood Springs,” she said Friday. “There was no empathy whatsoever. It’s disheartening.”
For its part, Glenwood Springs “wants to try to reach an amicable resolution,” Mayor Mike Gamba said.
“I am sympathetic to the situation she’s in,” added City Attorney Karl Hanlon. “I think we could find a way to work it out that would not be overly impactful and still honor longstanding policy.”
Holley’s lawyer, Michele Bass of Aspen, a private attorney working the case at no cost through Alpine Legal Services, contends that the city ordinance holding adjacent property owners responsible for trees in the parkway is invalid, at least in Holley’s case.
“The city should take responsibility for killing those trees,” she said. “But for the trimming, the trees would still be alive for many more years.”
Everyone pretty much agrees that improper trimming sped the trees’ demise.
Loren Sorber, arborist with Aspen Tree Service, which is in its first year as the city tree maintenance contractor, wrote in an email to Barnes, “These trees have been previously pruned incorrectly and have since inherited cytospera canker. This canker has entered from the large heading cuts and is progressing through the middle canopy into the lower portions of the trunk.
“Because the dead material is large and some 30-40 feet from the ground, these trees are capable of causing damage or harm to people and property. The spread of the disease cannot be controlled,” so the trees must be removed.
Concurring in a Feb. 19 email was Nick Padilla of Nick’s Tree Care.
“The improper trimming ‘started the dying process’ of the trees,” he wrote.
Barnes, though, said “that’s not really accurate” because the trees were at the end of their 40- to 50-year life expectancy in an urban setting.
Holley said the trees were trimmed two to three years ago by crews unknown to her that she thought were with the city.
Sorber said it appeared to him, based on evidence of the trees’ effort to seal off the damage, that the bad trims were longer than five years ago.
Is the city responsible?
Hanlon said the city has looked and can find no evidence that it ordered the trimming.
A neighbor, Gregory Durrett, retired owner of the Italian Underground, who has lived on the block for 70 years, said crews with ABC tree service did the most recent work on the trees. He said he had never been assessed for trimming done on the block.
“I think the city has always taken care of that. I’ve never paid for it,” he said.
ABC was the city’s tree maintenance contractor before Aspen Tree Service.
John Nevonen, the owner of ABC Tree and Lawn, said Monday that he’s familiar with the trees, and removed a silver poplar on a neighboring lot south of Holley’s house at the property owner’s expense. He said all of the poplars are old, and he didn’t do any work on the trees in front of Holley’s house.
Since the city operates the local electric utility, Barnes said, its tree maintenance contract includes trimming trees away from power lines and it does not assess adjacent property owners for that work.
The city has worked to bury power lines in recent years, but the 900 block of Blake still is served by overhead lines — in the alley behind the houses, said Doug Hazzard, head of the city Electric Department.
So who trimmed the trees in front of the houses and why?
“Is it some random, phantom tree trimmer out there?” asked Bass, who said she simply doesn’t believe the city’s contention that it isn’t responsible for the bad cuts.
The trees, which Durrett said were planted in 1958 by Jack Dalton, who worked in employment services for the state, are gone.
Holley said she’s left “not feeling very important as someone who’s lived here since 1981.” She’s also lost the shade on the west side of her house, which doesn’t have air-conditioning.
And Glenwood Springs, listed by the Arbor Day Foundation as a Tree City USA for each of the last 30 years, has lost two once-gorgeous, towering poplars.
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