Council aims to preserve local tree canopy

By: Andy Kozlowski, | Madison - Park News | Published July 12, 2017

MADISON HEIGHTS — City staff will soon begin redesigning how local roads are built in Madison Heights so that healthy trees are preserved except for in the most extreme cases.

This is the result of a new budget item that was approved by the Madison Heights City Council, prompted in part by the severe loss of tree canopy on Moulin Avenue, west of Simonds Elementary. Mayor Brian Hartwell said in an email that the City Council has “put city engineers on notice that trees should not be an expendable casualty to building roads.”

Separately, there are also plans to privately replace many of the trees that were removed during previous road projects, helping to restore some of the greenery that was lost. The GFWC Madison Heights Intermediate Women’s Club decided to form a tree committee on the issue after it previewed the mayor’s State of the City Address earlier this year. The group plans to work with the mayor, city staff and resident volunteers to replant trees in neighborhoods that lost their canopies.

Hartwell says this effort will be further assisted by the Royal Oak director of public works who oversaw Royal Oak’s Tree City USA designation. Girl Scouts from Troop 70922 have also pledged to donate a tree, after Hartwell gave them a guided tour of City Hall. The same scouts had previously helped the mayor and the Madison Heights Men’s Club paint fire hydrants in June and helped raise awareness for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The mayor explained that when a road is rebuilt, the city tries to squeeze in as much work as possible — new sidewalks, drains, curbs.

“We’d rather replace an aging pipe now than tear up a new road in a few years if there’s a potential for a future water main break,” Hartwell said. “A shameful casualty of our comprehensive road replacement plan was the city’s tree canopy.”

Previously, the engineering design was to lay pipes where the trees grew, so that construction required extensive cutting of tree roots — and if the roots were too severely cut, the tree would likely die in 2-3 years. So, the city would preemptively remove the entire tree, regardless of whether it was healthy before construction began.

“This institutional preference of pipes over trees lasted for years,” Hartwell said. “Project after project, the city would remove trees for fear of them dying years later. It might make sense on paper to replace trees with pipes. But for those people who bought homes and lived on tree-lined streets, it’s heartbreaking to see the empty, unshaded neighborhoods. Not to mention how the loss of trees damaged the environment and property values.”

Moulin Avenue is a striking example, where dozens of mature trees were removed. But not all trees were unreasonably removed, he said.

Some were dying from the emerald ash borer, which wiped out millions of trees in southeastern Michigan more than 10 years ago.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments published a report in 2014 called the Green Infrastructure Vision for Southeast Michigan, which identified Madison Heights as one of the most urgent areas for action because the community has less than 20 percent of its tree canopy.

“Every tree removed is especially noticeable in Madison Heights because of how thin our tree stock presently is,” Hartwell said. “Every neighborhood from 10 Mile to 14 Mile could benefit from, first, not removing healthy trees, and second, replanting where we lost trees.

“Trees evoke deep emotion,” the mayor continued. “I’ve mostly heard from residents upset that the city removes trees and fails to replace them. The lost value, both monetary and emotional, is hard to calculate. I’ve also heard from residents relieved that the city took the tree because they couldn’t afford its removal or don’t like raking leaves. As a leader in the community, I look at the tree issue as, ‘What is best for most residents?’ A tree-lined street has more benefits to the neighborhood and city than the convenience of one person. Besides, that’s one reason why I round up 20-30 volunteers each fall to rake leaves at the homes of low-income seniors and disabled residents.”

Mark Bliss, the mayor pro tem, said in an email that he was proud to join the mayor in coauthoring last year’s council goal — now a live project — to implement a tree replacement project for road projects.

“The need for this is huge,” Bliss said. “Some road construction projects completely devastated the tree canopy of entire blocks. Not only does that impact quality of life, but there’s an economic cost to the loss of the tree. Statistically, trees increase property values, improve energy savings and reduce stormwater runoff. The city of Portland even found — through a study they ran using the software program i-Tree — that every dollar spent on a tree returned an estimated $3.80 in benefits. Pretty good return on investment, for sure.”

The goal, Bliss said, is to try to implement each road project in a way that reduces the likelihood of removing trees in the first place. Then the city will do what it can to try to replace the trees that were removed, and to add more trees throughout the city in general.

“On Arbor Day this year, we planted several new trees in Ambassador Park, and we offered discounted trees to residents. Those types of programs must be strengthened and offered several times a year, either directly through the city, or by city-supported events run by the stellar community groups in our city,” Bliss said. “Now, the economic realities we’re working with mean that we must take a very calculated approach to this issue, but I’m thrilled that the process has started, and I look forward to building on it in the coming years.”

City Councilman David Soltis said he was disappointed to see the issue being politicized by some of the challengers in the council race, when the council had already been working on the issue.

“We have a viable plan we’ve been working to put in place,” Soltis said. “I mean, who doesn’t want more trees in this city, in their neighborhoods? Also, city management has been strong with communication to the residents with any issues regarding trees on the streets. (DPS director) Joe Vitali is fantastic. He is always out there talking to residents, going to their homes and explaining anything that needs to be done.”

For the replanting effort, the mayor said that he anticipates several local businesses donating trees and mulch this year, much like they did last year, when the Madison Heights Men’s Club planted trees in the fall.

“This year will be the same. Volunteer groups will be asked to participate as part of a completely private tree-planting program,” Hartwell said. “(Council candidate) Roslyn Grafstein and I consulted with the director of Royal Oak’s Department of Public Services, given his city’s experience as a Tree City USA. We learned a few tricks including finding land to create a tree nursery so that today’s saplings can mature before they are planted.

“At first, the private replanting project will be modest, in the dozens of trees,” he said. “But over time this will reverse the decades of tree removals.”

Residents of Madison Heights can plant trees by hand without a permit. But it’s always advisable to consult the city’s DPS on which species are preferred. As an example, the city suggests that residents don’t plant silver maples due to their shallow root system.

The best way to get involved is to join the organized effort, the mayor said.

“Residents may contact me or the Women’s Club to offer donations or help,” Hartwell said. “We need trees, recommendations on which streets to plant, and volunteers willing to get dirty.”

The mayor can be reached by emailing brianhartwell@madison-heights.org.