A proposed ordinance that would restrict tree removal on private property in Niles was sent back to committee for discussion after several residents voiced opposition.
The ordinance was expected to be approved by the village board after it unanimously passed Niles' Environmental Practices Committee last month. The proposal did not get much opposition when trustees informally considered it two weeks ago.
If passed, the ordinance would require residents to obtain permits to remove trees that are on their property. Permits would be issued for trees deemed dangerous, diseased or dead. The village also would give residents permission to remove trees that are in the way of home additions or other construction, such as a pool installation, said Assistant Village Manager Hadley Skeffington.
Healthy trees that simply are unwanted could not be removed under the proposal, and residents who removed trees without a permit would face fines. In addition, if the ordinance is passed, the village would have the power to fine residents for not removing trees that the village orders taken down, usually because they are dead or diseased, Skeffington said.
Several residents attended a recent village board meeting to protest a proposal they said would overstep the authority of the village.
Bob Zalesny, a lifelong resident of Niles, said his sister lives in a gated community outside of Niles and that he used to mock her about the control the community had, even telling her what color she could paint her door.
"Now Niles is going to tell me what kind of tree I can plant, and whether I can cut it down, on my private property," Zalesny said. "I'd rather live in a free city than a Tree City."
Zalesny's Tree City reference was a shot at village officials, who said the impetus behind the proposed ordinance is getting a Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation.
Village Manager Sten Vinezeano has said that Niles has met all the criteria to be recognized as a Tree City with the exception of establishing a tree ordinance. He said the designation would help the village obtain more state and federal grants.
The Arbor Day Foundation is a nonprofit conservation and education organization that was founded in 1972. According to the foundation's website, the criteria for a community to earn the Tree City USA designation include having a tree board or department, a community forestry program with an annual budget of at least $2 per capita, an Arbor Day observance and proclamation and a tree care ordinance.
Niles resident Joe Walsh also spoke out against the proposed ordinance, saying that "if you pass this tree ordinance, you violate the First Amendment of the Constitution. Many people see landscaping as an art."
Walsh said that instead of dictating do's and don'ts, the village should take a different approach.
"You need to 'incentivize' rather than penalize," Walsh said.
Walsh also hinted at possible legal action if the ordinance is passed.
"If you pass it, I'll contact the Thomas More Society and fight it with everything I have," Walsh said.
Niles resident and former Trustee Louella Preston also urged the trustees to vote against the proposed ordinance.
"My property is my castle, and I don't want someone telling me what I can do on my property when it comes to landscaping," Preston said.
Instead of taking a vote on the proposed ordinance, Trustee Rosemary Palicki urged fellow board members to send it back to the Environmental Practices Committee for further discussion, which they did. Palicki, who is chairman of that committee, said the group will meet to discuss the proposal on Feb. 5. She urged all interested residents to attend.
After the meeting, Niles Certified Arborist Anthony Dati said he saw sending the ordinance back to committee as a bit of a defeat.
"I do. I thought was a solid ordinance. I wish they would have voted on it either way," Dati said.
Palicki said she recommended that the proposal be sent back to committee to ensure the public has time to voice its opinion. She said she is still behind the ordinance and expects the committee to again send the proposal to the village trustees with the recommendation to pass it.
"The public hasn't participated and are now stating their opinions," Palicki said. "I want to be sure they are heard, which is why I recommended sending it back to committee. They (the committee members) were firmly behind it before and I expect they will be in favor of it once again."