It has taken years of ideas, months of discussion and seven public meetings, but the finish line was crossed Tuesday, March 8, when an updated tree ordinance was unanimously passed by Wilmette trustees.
The ordinance, which goes into effect April 1, serves two primary purposes: 1. protecting the village’s tree canopy by minimizing the number of unnecessary tree removals, and 2. ensuring that sufficient replacement trees are planted. Its focus is to protect heritage trees, defined by the Village of Wilmette, as oak and hickory trees with a 10-inch diameter or greater, and all trees that are at least 20 inches in diameter.
Prior to final approval, the Wilmette Village Board concluded discussions on two aspects of the ordinance — side-yard trees and tree-removal fees — that did not see a resolution after a four-hour Feb. 22 meeting.
For the side-yard discussion, trustees unanimously agreed a new proposal from the village staff that states a side-yard heritage tree may only be removed if the village forester/tree preservation officer determines it would not survive construction. If the tree can survive, the removal application would be denied, and the applicant can appeal to the Zoning Board of Appeals.
But board members were split on the removal fees in lieu of a replacement tree. Three trustees supporting charging $175 per inch, while the remaining three trustees supported a $125 fee. In the end, Village President Senta Plunkett voted with Trustees Kathy Dodd, Kate Gjaja and Justin Sheperd to break the tie and set the fee at $125 per inch.
Trustee Gina Kennedy, a proponent of the $175 fee, said she believes the higher fee would better fund the tree replacement program.
“Without $175 … after paying the additional administrative costs of this program, there won’t be any money left from the fee collections to pay for newly planted trees,” she said, adding that she doesn’t feel comfortable dipping into the village’s fund reserves if there is not enough money available.
Kennedy also said tree replacement itself is complicated since a replacement tree won’t entirely make up for the loss of the tree that was taken down.
“You can’t actually replace a 20-inch to a 40-inch heritage tree,” Kennedy said. “There’s no such tree on the market. Inch for inch doesn’t even adequately replace what we’re doing, but it comes closer to any other model that we looked at at the (Land Use Committee) level.”
Dodd, who supported the lower fee, said she doesn’t believe there’s sufficient data on tree removals to justify having a higher fee.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t get to $175,” she said. “I don’t see a need to get to $175 tonight. I see a need for us to learn, I see a need for us to review the assumptions in the next one or two years, and then we can decide.”
Plunkett, who ended up voting for the $125 fee, said she understood both perspectives, but said it’s easier to increase a fee down the road than lowering it.
“I’d rather be incremental in the fee to know exactly what this is going to cost us in a couple years,” she said. “And if we need to go to $175 in two years because that’s what the data shows and the ordinance otherwise is working great, then I think I’m for it.”
While Trustee Peter Barrow supported the higher fee, he also stressed how important it was to not get caught up in the fee amount and to not forget how important the ordinance is for what it offers.
“We are, for the first time, creating a program where you can no longer clear cut a lot just based on convenience and pay a small fee,” he said. “Meaningful oversight, meaningful payment of fees, and forester involvement in tree protection.
“Whatever we come up with tonight, this is an extraordinary moment that I think this board should be extraordinarily proud of, this community should be extraordinarily proud of, because it’s been the effort of well over four months of the committee, the staff, the board, the residents, meeting after meeting. And I think we’ve come up with a great ordinance.”
Plunkett and the trustees repeated numerous times during the meeting that the ordinance is just the beginning. It will be looked at again, possibly as soon as this fall, to see if anything needs to be changed.
Barrow, who is chairperson of the village’s Land Use Committee, also said that the board will continue to look at additional changes that can be made. One he anticipates happening will be a discussion on how to protect trees during construction projects.
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.