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2 Investigators: City Way Behind On Tree Removal, Trimming

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Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Pam Zekman serves on CBS 2 Chicago’s...
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(CBS) — There’s a huge backlog of thousands of requests for city trees to be trimmed or removed–often because residents believe they are damaged or dead and could be dangerous.

The CBS 2 investigators learned some of those requests date back to 2011. `

Worse yet some people have been seriously injured and their cases have cost the city millions of dollars to settle lawsuits.

The case of Erick Leon highlights the apparent disconnect that’s existed between complaints being filed and work getting done.

In 2010, a 200 pound decayed tree limb in Lincoln Park fell on Leon’s back as he bicycled back from making a restaurant delivery.

“All of a sudden I heard this snap, Crack,” Leon recalled.

He was left paralyzed from the waist down. His lawsuit against the city was recently settled for $5.5 million.

His attorney, Michael Goode says that at first the city said there were no complaints on file with the city prior to the day Leon was injured. Then, through discovery in the case, 16 complaints surfaced.
They included several requests for tree trimming from a resident who said there were “multiple dead branches on parkway trees,” in front of his house on Grant Place.

In September 2010, the same resident said, “This is time sensitive. Numerous large dead branches have been falling on the sidewalk and street. Several dead branches are remaining on the tree and are hazardous. One branch recently broke a windshield,” according to the service request report.

One month later he again asked the city to remove the dead branches which, “has not been done despite several requests over (the) past few years.”

In 2011, just six months before the branch fell on Eric Leon, the resident asked 43rd ward Alderman Michele Smith for help and she wrote the Department of Streets and Sanitation saying “branches have previously fallen on cars and may present a safety hazard.”

Activity reports for city tree trimmers indicated work was “completed” in response to one of the requests, but in a deposition, “We were told that that was a mistake, that the work hadn’t been done,” Goode said. In response to another service request, city records showed a crew went out and reported back that no trim was needed.

“I think there were tremendous inadequacies and unreliable reports that were prepared, Goode said. “And I don’t think the inspection process was adequate for the task.”

Erick Leon says he was angry about the history of city complaints. “I’ve got to live the rest of my life like this because of someone’s negligence.”

It’s happened before. In 2011 the city paid $1.5 million for injuries four-year old Jawlen Raggs suffered in 2006 after the limb of a tree limb struck him in the head causing a skull fracture. In that case records showed city tree trimmers had been in the area and should have noticed that the branch was either dead or weakened.

Now the city says it has a much more efficient system to get rid of dead branches and trees that could be dangerous.

Using a grid system crews are now assigned to “blitz” a neighborhood to respond to tree removal and trimming requests but also handle other tree issues they observe. Priority trimming is given to trees that have branches blocking stop signs, and traffic lights.

“When we receive a complaint we go out and we promptly inspect it, said Charles Williams, Commissioner of the city Department of Streets and Sanitation. “If that tree is a hazard, we take safety very seriously; the tree is going to come down.”

But Portage Park residents complained to CBS 2 that they have waited years for city action.

Dave Hildebrandt said that last year a city inspector told residents of the 4600 block of West Waveland that 15 trees needed to be removed. Some trees were treated. But this year their condition worsened.
“I’m concerned about the branches that constantly snap and fall to the ground,” Hildebrandt said adding that they have hit cars and he’s concerned neighborhood children could get hurt.

His neighbor Brian Zeigler has two children. Zeigler says he’s complained to the city about the tree in front of his house several times in 2012 and 2013 and nothing was done. Zeigler says he’s worried about, “My children and the other children being hurt from falling branches.”

After CBS 2 called the city about their complaints an inspector was sent out and two weeks later city crews began taking down dead trees on their block.

But that tree in Lincoln Park has remained on Grant Place three years after the accident that paralyzed Erick Leon.

“I can’t believe it after what happened to me,” Leon said. “This tree should have been taken down.”
Commissioner Williams said city inspectors checked the tree in 2011 after the accident and again in 2012.

“The tree was found to be alive and doing well,” Williams said.

A tree expert hired by the city for the Leon case reached the same conclusion in 2013.

But two experts hired by Leon’s attorney wrote reports criticizing the city’s failure to notice signs the tree had problems before his accident and warning that there was still a risk of failure. One of them concluded in 2012 that the city should “remove this tree immediately as it continues to pose a danger to pedestrians, motorists and other public way users. The likelihood of another limb or possibly the entire tree failing continues to increase with every day.”

Within hours after hearing that from CBS 2, Commissioner Williams sent an inspector to examine the tree and ordered a crew to take it down saying he was concerned about severe weekend storm warnings.

“The information you provided us within the report combined with one of our inspectors again looking at the tree, we felt there could be issues with this tree and we want to get it down,” Williams said.
City officials say there are currently 3,499 000 trees scheduled for removal and 26,316 open requests for tree trimming. The oldest date back to 2011. The backlog is blamed in part on past cutbacks and the recent increase of severe storms that have damaged city trees.

Commissioner Williams says he will attack the backlog problem with help from $2.7 million dollars in additional funding that will add five tree trimming crews to the 22 the city currently has. The city says this will allow the Forestry bureau to trim 15,000 additional trees and plant 2800 trees.
Complaints are best lodged by calling 311, Williams said. You can also call your alderman.

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