In response to tree-ravaging insects, damaged vehicles and pedestrian complaints, city staff is making an effort to ensure its urban forest gets a haircut.
Since mid-2017, the city has been surveying trees on terraces in residential areas to make sure they adhere to city ordinance. Branches can hang no lower than 15 feet above streets and 7 feet above sidewalks.
Moving alphabetically by street name, city staff has surveyed dozens of streets and sent residents several hundred orders to correct.
“It’s been ages, if ever, that we’ve done that,” said John Whitcomb, operations director.
Staff has reached streets beginning with the letter K and likely won’t finish surveying until next year, he said.
“To be fair to residents, we opted to go through streets alphabetically so that we were not focusing on one side of town versus another,” Operations Superintendent Kamron Nash wrote in an email to The Gazette.
From the city’s perspective, trimming low-hanging branches makes streets and sidewalks safer and protects city vehicles such as garbage trucks, fire trucks and street sweepers, Whitcomb said.
“If you travel down some streets, you can actually see where tree limbs have been broken or sliced off by trucks or other vehicles,” Nash wrote. “This isn’t the ideal way to keep trees trimmed up, as taller vehicles can be damaged.”
“It is a problem,” Whitcomb agreed. “This is an ordinance requirement, and it does have an impact on equipment, frankly. We do get a lot of pedestrian complaints every season about growth over the sidewalk.”
Residents who receive orders to correct have 30 days to trim branches. Citations are possible for failing to comply, but typically the city will do the work and bill the resident, Whitcomb said.
If a city employee inspects a property that was ordered to correct and notices branches were not trimmed enough, the property owner is given another order to correct, Parks Supervisor Ethan Lee wrote in an email.
“We want to be fair to residents that have made an attempt but didn’t quite get to the 7- or 15-foot requirement,” he wrote.
The city also has ramped up how it addresses diseased and dying trees, Lee noted.
In 2015, the city began proactively marking ash trees that emerald ash borers had killed or fatally injured. Last year, the program was expanded to mark other diseased tree species, Lee wrote.
The city has issued notices to remove about 3,000 ash trees since 2015.
“It makes sense for our staff to look at all ordinance issues at the same time since many residents contract out their tree work,” Nash wrote.
In addition to trimming and chopping down trees, residents must also dispose of tree debris. They can’t leave wood and brush on the curb for the city to collect until the week after Thanksgiving, so in summer, they need to take it to the landfill, Whitcomb said.
“Unless it is in the street or piled so high that it is a vision triangle issue, we will allow them a reasonable amount of time to remove the debris,” Lee wrote. “Usually, anything that has been left for over a month will receive an enforcement letter” from Neighborhood and Community Services.
Residents don’t have to be licensed to chop down branches or trees, and neither do the contractors they can hire.
At least one Janesville City Council member fears less-than-reputable contractors are taking advantage of residents.
“I know one guy that had a tree fall on his house because some do-it-yourself guy did not know what they were doing,” Councilman Jim Farrell wrote in an email to The Gazette. “My point is there seems to be more unscrupulousness and incompetent contractors than ever before that have contacted Janesville residents.
“I strongly support using local, qualified vendors even if they are not the lowest cost,” Farrell wrote.
After a recent hailstorm, contractors solicited residents to repair damaged siding. Like those contractors, tree-trimmers who sell their services door-to-door need to have city licenses, said Dave Godek, city clerk/treasurer.
Being licensed to solicit means police have done a background check on the contractor, and the city has confirmed the person is insured. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person is reputable, Godek said.
“It’s like anything else: You want to do your homework,” he said.