August 7, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Trees are root of discord in Huntington Woods

Allison Iverson estimated she would have to pay the city $3,500 if she cut down a 150-foot Sycamore in her backyard. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Huntington Woods— Drive through parts of this tiny Oakland County community and you’ll see why “woods” is part of its name.

Tall, majestic trees with wide canopies form a leafy archway over many residential streets.

It’s the calling card, if you will, of this 1.6-square-mile community near Interstate 696 and Woodward.

To preserve the look and feel that makes Huntington Woods an attractive place to live, city officials want to discourage homeowners from taking down trees that are not diseased or dying.

But a new ordinance that requires homeowners to get permits, pay fees and consult experts first has many residents stumped about the city’s motivation.

As Allison Iversen sees it, the root of the problem is the ordinance strips homeowners of control over their property.

“My personal feeling is they shouldn’t be able to tell us that we can’t take down any tree on our property,” said Iversen. “It’s ridiculous.”

Iversen, along with a group of neighbors, led a successful petition drive earlier this month that requires the commission to repeal the law or put it on a ballot.

However, Huntington Woods City Manager Amy Sullivan said the law is intended to preserve its trees, a defining feature of the community.

“It says if a mature, healthy tree is going to be removed, it has to replaced somehow so we can maintain the tree canopy,” she said.

Tree protection law enacted

The Huntington Woods community has more than 6,000 residents and more than 2,000 homes. Residents’ annual median income is $104,879, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to the brick homes and manicured lawns that line the city’s streets, especially in Iversen’s neighborhood, it has a small forest of tall trees.

On June 17, Huntington Woods’ five-member city commission unanimously passed the new tree protection ordinance, Sullivan said.

It amended the city’s code of ordinances to require permits for cutting down trees — something that previously wasn’t on the books, she said.

The city only keeps permit fees of homeowners removing mature, healthy trees; it returns fees for removing dead or dying trees, according to the city manager.

Sullivan also said the law stemmed from a 2007 survey of residents conducted to help develop the community’s master plan.

The survey found 96 percent of the 600 residents who responded said they favored street tree planting programs and regulations protecting street trees.

The survey also found 91 percent said they favored regulations to preserve large, specimen or historic trees.

As a result, one of the goals of the master plan the city adopted in 2008 was to “promote preservation and enhancement of trees and the urban forest in the city.”

Sullivan said the city patterned its tree ordinance after those in 13 communities, including Grosse Ile, Northville and Franklin.

The city also sought and received input from residents about the ordinance and held a June 17 public hearing, before the commission voted.

Iversen, who researched the same ordinances, said removal of trees on occupied single-family residential lots is exempt from permits in those other communities.

Iversen also pointed out the agenda for the June 17 meeting said only the ordinance was “to revise the regulations for trees on public property.”

Officials with the state’s largest trade association for arborists, the Arboriculture Society of Michigan, said it couldn’t weigh in on the issue.

“While ASM (Arboriculture Society of Michigan) cannot comment directly on the Huntington Woods ordinance, we are a nonprofit membership organization providing education to the public and its members regarding all aspects of the arboriculture industry,” Jason Kappen of Kappen Tree Service and the society’s president said in a statement Friday.

“The ASM promotes proper pruning and trimming, as well as justified tree removal and right tree-right place practices.”

Resident asserts her rights

Iversen, who’s lived in Huntington Woods for 16 years, said she got involved with the issue after she heard the City Commission approved the ordinance.

“(The issue) struck a chord with me,” said the 40-year-old mother of four. “I kind of became the noisy person on this to show people this is an egregious infringement on people’s private property rights. It just defies logic.”

She also started to wonder how much it would cost to remove a 150-foot Sycamore in her home’s backyard if she ever wanted to have it cut down. Iversen said she has no plans to remove the tree.

Under the city’s new ordinance, she estimates the bill would total about $6,500 — $3,000 for the removal and the rest to comply with the city’s ordinance.

Last week Monday, Iversen filed the petition that’s put the ordinance in limbo.

She and more than a dozen volunteers gathered 533 signatures for the petition in a six days. The city charter only required 180.

David Sloan, who gathered about 100 of the signatures, said he doesn’t have any plans to cut down trees at his home, either, but was compelled to act.

“I felt this was so patently not a representation of what people in the community want that I needed to get involved,” said Sloan, who has lived in the city for 55 years. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s such an overreaching ordinance.”

Sullivan, the city manager, said the city had planned to issue a moratorium on enforcing the law to give officials time to roll out a program to educate residents about the ordinance, but the petition made it a moot point.

The law effectively has been suspended until either the city commission votes to repeal the measure or residents decide its fate in November, Sullivan said.

The soonest the commission could take up the issue is at its next meeting, set for Aug. 19.

“If we’re victorious, then we preserve not only their rights, but their hard earned money as well,” Iversen said.
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