Village of glen ellyn plastic flag on tree stump

By Andrew Van Gorp on 30 March, 2015

The state of tree preservation in Glen Ellyn is much like the state of the Village’s parkway trees themselves, twisted and trimmed into mystifying and intriguing bonsai contortion. 

As many villagers will recall, Glen Ellyn passed the new Tree Preservation Ordinance (TPO) in 2011 (Village Code, Title 4, Chapter 8). Many may not understand the intricacies of what the ordinance states. This article is by no means an exposé, the ordinance is always available for the public to read here.

The Village claims to have a TPO, and they do- but how is this ordinance protecting Glen Ellyn trees? Maybe not in the way you might imagine.

The real issue with protecting Village trees is actually a great problem to have, and one which cannot be sidestepped. Every villager has an inalienable right to private property. This is great news for all of us- we are free to use our land in the way we desire (unless that desire conflicts with zoning laws or Village ordinances).

Unfortunately, when the ordinance was first proposed, officials were understandably spooked to put into writing any kind of wording that would protect trees at the expense of homeowners’ or developers’ rights. With so much on every public servant’s plate these days, people say that it’s a tough sell to get people to talk about trees in the first place, let alone to protect the trees in writing.

In the years since the ordinance passed, homeowners and developers are still cutting down healthy trees that can sometimes be more than one to two centuries old- for garages, additions, parking lots, decks, aesthetics, etc.

But we must understand that according to the ordinance, it is perfectly within their right to do so. The Tree Preservation Ordinance states that any villager can cut down a tree on their property without a permit, any time of year, with no duty to report the cutting to anyone.  Complete data is not being collected of how many trees in the Village are cut down, as there is no civic duty for homeowners to report random tree removal. The only tree removals the Village does learn of, are by means of the Tree Preservation Plan (TPP), which is a form that a property owner must complete in order to get a building permit.

The ordinance states that every property owner seeking a building permit gets to decide which trees they will cut down (“impacted trees”) and which they will keep (“protected trees”) on their TPP. The Village goes on to state that it will fine people who harm “protected” trees $250-$750. But, if a property owner needs to change their plan to cut down a tree they previously marked as a “protected” tree on the TPP, they may do so at no cost as long as they tell the Village.

Unfortunately, some believe that this policy might actually incentivize people who are on the fence about whether or not to cut down a tree on their property to declare the tree is “impacted” and cut it down- just to avoid a potential fine. Furthermore, some homeowners may question why they should have to jump through hoops if they get to decide the tree’s fate either way- without any consequence or incentive for their end decision.

Do we require these formalities so we can credit ourselves with having a TPO in Glen Ellyn, even though the TPO does (arguably) close to nothing to protect Village trees beyond cementing in people’s minds that trees are worthy of consideration? Is there any evidence that marking a tree as “protected” versus “impacted” on a TPP plan increases the likelihood of a homeowner saving trees they were otherwise planning on cutting down?

I believe there are many substantial ways to bolster tree preservation in Glen Ellyn without impeding someone’s right to private property. The first way would be to get more data. A good question to ask ourselves is, “how can any public servant make a good decision without good data?” The answer is, it’s impossible to make a good policy decision without good data.

I believe that an important first step to getting Glen Ellyn back on the right track, would be to amend the Tree Preservation Ordinance to include language that requires tree-cutting services within the Village of Glen Ellyn to measure and record the diameter at breast height (DBH) and species of the trees that they cut down. These numbers should be reported to the Village to be compiled, (regardless of the reason for tree removal or season of the year). In this way we can get a better feel for the rate of removals in our Village outside of those trees marked on a Tree Preservation Plan before construction. This dataset would also be beneficial as a way to estimate rate-of-spread for pestilences such as Dutch Elm Disease or the Emerald Ash Borer through Glen Ellyn. 

We may find that the tree take-down rate is as healthy as the natural rate we’d find in an Illinois Savannah. Maybe our “Heritage” trees in the Village are falling at a staggering rate. We can’t know until we amass the data.

The data provided will help our public servants to amend our Tree Preservation Ordinance to match the needs of our community’s tree loss. Furthermore, the data can allow the Village to send out literature encouraging homeowners who have recently lost a tree to prioritize replacing the fallen tree with a native tree species. This would provide a positive opportunity to point out the important role of Heritage (native) trees in improving home values and maintaining Village character at the crucial juncture before a homeowner has had the chance to replace a tree on their property. This practice would provide for the regeneration of our Urban Forest and a healthier Glen Ellyn.

Glen Ellyn, which has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree City USA program, can definitely take this small step to do better by its trees.

“Timber!” Let’s fell the myth that we can’t have it all. In the end, only good data can allow us to create smart policy that allows us to both preserve our native Heritage trees and protect homeowners’ and developers’ rights.

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