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A New Leaf for Tree Protection?

Village tries to honor private-property rights and protect the future of century-old trees.

“We protect hundred-year-old houses, so why don’t we protect hundred-year-old trees that are actually living?” asks longtime Glen Ellyn resident Janiece Waters.

It’s a question that’s been asked many times by village residents concerned about the lack of protection for trees on private property, and the problem is now literally in her backyard.

“The house next door to mine just sold as a teardown, and there’s a legacy oak tree in the backyard very close to my fence line,” she said. “I benefit from that tree, and am concerned that it will be cut down or damaged.”

In 2001, the village adopted its Tree Preservation Ordinance, which requires developers and owners to submit a plan for all trees on their construction property—determining which ones they’ll protect, which they won’t and which they’ll tear down.

Because of private property rights, the owners get to determine the level of protection the property warrants.

“You can decide that none of your trees are protected and cut all of them down,” says Glen Ellyn Environmental Commission Chair Bob Marcott.

In 2006, the commission proposed amendments to the ordinance that provided additional protection for certain trees. Although the Village Board tabled the recommendations, deciding to take no action at that time, it renewed its interest in the issue last year and requested the commission provide new, more conservative recommendations. Marcott confirms that the committee is close to completing these recommendations, and may present them to the board in the coming weeks.

Like many involved in the project, he’s been working on the issue for years and understands that the line between public interest and private rights isn’t always a clear one.

“Governments do regulate private property,” he said. “But there’s a balance that has to be achieved, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Jeffrey Gahris, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and previous member of the commission, agrees that ­proposed changes to the ordinance require looking at the issue from several angles.

“We worked hard on the ordinance a few years ago, really trying to think about the different dynamics: homeowner rights, builder concerns and environmental concerns,” he said.  

Proponents of increased tree protection see it as an opportunity to maintain the area’s distinct character—which is often what drew them to the town initially.

“The first time I ever drove through Glen Ellyn, I was stunned at this charming town set in woodland,” said Linda Gilbert, president of Citizens for Glen Ellyn Preservation, a community group that actively protects the area’s distinct character by advocating for historic preservation, planning and sensible growth, according to its Web site.

“Cutting down these trees takes away something that’s inherent in the character of the village,” she added.

Trees offer more tangible benefits as well. Organizations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Wildlife Federation to Texas A&M University tout the advantages of trees on personal and ecological health, including reduced blood pressure and increased oxygen supply, as well as reduced water erosion. There’s also economic factors like increased property value and reduced cooling costs. (Check out the National Tree Benefit Calculator for a fun, interactive way to learn more.)  

As a designated Tree City USA for the past 26 years, Glen Ellyn clearly understands these benefits. The issue is how large a role it can play in policing protection when the tree is personal property.

Part of the answer may lie with the owners themselves.

“It’s about educating residents about the value of these trees,” said Waters, who hopes to meet her new neighbors soon.

“Through education,” she added, “we build momentum and have a real opportunity to change the future.”

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