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  • Kevin Elliott

150-year-old silver maple to stay for now

A request to remove a silver maple tree believed to be more than a century old from a property in the 100 block of Drace Avenue was rejected on Monday, August 13, by the Rochester City Council.

Rochester Hills residents Jim and Annette Dolot said they purchased the property at 151 Drace with the intent to build a new home on the property. However, the couple said three different arborists that had assessed the 59-inch wide tree all recommended removing the tree before building a new home on the property due to safety concerns.

Rochester Deputy City Manager Nik Banda, who is a registered forester, said the city's tree ordinance protects trees on public and private land that are greater than seven inches wide. The ordinance, he said, allows property owners to remove up to three trees each year from their property at their own cost without having to replace them, provided they obtain a free permit from the city to do so. However, trees that are wider than 24-inches may qualify as landmark trees and must be evaluated to determine whether they may be removed.

Potential landmark trees are evaluated for their condition, life expectancy, insects present, expected growth and other factors. Trees may scored up to 30 points, with anything greater than 16 being considered a landmark tree. Once deemed a landmark tree, the property owner may only remove the tree with the approval of an ordinance variance from city council. Further, any work done, such as construction that could damage a tree's root system, is prohibited. Replacement fees may be charged by the city if such actions take place without the city's authorization.

The silver maple on the property scored a total of 23 points. Further, Banda said former property owners appeared to have taken great care to ensure the tree would survive, with no clear damage from storms or wind for many years. Banda estimates the tree is about 150 years old – a rarity for silver maples, which he said tend to rot and break before growing that old.

Jim Dolot said he and his wife have lived in Rochester Hills for about 20 years and recently purchased the property in Rochester with hopes of building a new home and living near the downtown area, parks and trails. However, they were unaware that the tree was a landmark tree prior to purchasing the property.

"In each of the two homes we have owned, we have had numerous large, wonderful trees," Dolot said. "In Northville, we had five large black walnut trees – two in the front and three in the backyard. At our current house in Rochester Hills, we have 15 trees differing in sizes and types."

Despite their appreciation for trees, Dolot said part of the silver maple on the Drace Avenue property leans about 50 to 60 degrees to one side, and the location and size raises concerns about future property damage and harm to people were it to be damaged in a storm. Dolot said one of the neighbors has also had concerns that the tree could damage his house and garage, but wasn't permitted to remove significant branches.

Further, Dolot said he has had three different tree services evaluate the tree, all of which recommended removing the tree before beginning construction.

Councilman Dean Bevacqua said he would like for council to revisit the tree ordinance to remove silver maple tree species from potential landmark trees.

"I'm a tree conservationist," he said, noting that he has a state-approved tree conservation plan on 50 acres of land he owns in northern Michigan. "That said, I'm not a fan of silver maples. I had one next to my house that was over my bedroom and deck and had to cut it back. That tree also dropped a limb that barely missed my neighbor's house... I'm very concerned about these trees. I would be okay with the concept of removing this tree.

"I wonder if we should take silver maple off the landmark list. They don't usually get this large without rotting out. They are brittle and take on a lot of water, and when it gets really cold, they can freeze and break."

Councilman Ben Giovanelli noted that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) noted that silver maples is one of the species that isn't recommended for planting in urban areas. He also said he would entertain the idea of removing the species from the landmark list.

Banda, who had recommended council allow the tree to stay under the ordinance, confirmed that the specific species isn't one that the city would plant in most areas, with the exception of a park area for educational purposes. He also agreed that the species tend to be brittle and rot before they reach the age of the particular tree in question. However, he said the tree has withstood the test of time through careful maintenance and there wasn't any reason to remove it under the city's ordinance.

"They are classified in many cities as weed trees. We didn't go that route," Banda said, who said the city has many silver maple trees. "This is the only landmark silver maple that I'm aware of. I haven't come across any that met the standard."

Council asked how long it would take to amend the city's ordinance to remove silver maple trees from the list of potential landmark trees. Rochester City Manager Blaine Wing said an ordinance amendment could be before the city at its next meeting on August 27.

Councilwoman Ann Peterson questioned whether the city could potentially lose its Tree City USA designation if the tree was permitted to be removed.

Banda said the designation is based on tree canopy density and not the particular number of trees. He said removing the designation of a landmark tree would limit the city's ability to require the property owner of purchasing replacement trees if they provided a variance.

"We would be happy to do that and would like to put replacements on the property, or put the money in escrow or however you see fit," Dolot said.

"It sounds like we are going to rule to make an exception," Peterson said before making a motion to deny the request based on the city's tree ordinance.

The motion, however, failed to gain support from council members and failed to move forward.

The issue is expected to be taken up again at the council's August 27 meeting.

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