More trees headed to Oak Park

Trustees reduce controversial tree spacing minimum from 50 to 35 feet

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Oak Park got a little greener at Tuesday night's village board meeting with trustees voting to reverse a decision by its recently retired forester to increase the space between trees in parkways.

New trees installed in Oak Park's "urban forest" will be spaced 35 feet apart, rather than the controversial 50-foot minimum spacing requirement launched in 2009 by former forester Jim Semelka, who retired from the position late last year and took a new job in the private sector. 

Semelka told Wednesday Journal in January that spacing the trees further apart would allow their canopies to grow to their full potential, making them healthier and stronger.

"One of the things that dawned on me is that we tend to plant our trees too close together," he said in January. "When they are too close together, a number of things happen. Trees compete for resources; they don't cooperate. There's only so much out there in terms of sunlight and rainfall and things trees need to grow."

The 2009 change was not without its detractors.

Kathryn Jonas, an Oak Park arborist and private consultant who specializes in urban trees, served on the village's now-defunct Oak Park Forestry Commission in 2009 when the tree-spacing change was put into effect.

She said in a telephone interview that residents have been lobbying to reverse the decision since it was first enacted. She said that in 2009 the forestry commission voted unanimously to keep the spacing at 35 feet. Oak Parkers have come to expect 35 feet between the trees, she said, noting that "everybody would like a shade tree in their parkway."

"The minimum was always there so it assured people there would be a continuous canopy of shade [along the parkway]," she said, noting that the commission also disagreed with Semelka because parkway trees were never intended to grow into "specimen quality," and they never reach their full growth potential in a parkway situation.

A recommendation from Public Works Department Director John Wielebnicki noted that the minimum spacing standard for other suburban communities ranges from 15 to 50, depending on the size of the tree. Spacing is set at 35 feet in both River Forest and Evanston; 25 feet in Kenilworth; 30 to 35 feet for ornamentals and 40 to 45 feet for large trees in Elmhurst; and 15 feet for small trees, 40 feet for medium trees and 50 feet for large trees in Glen Ellyn.

The village forester position has yet to be filled and public works said in its recommendation that it could implement either spacing requirement.

Wielebnicki could not immediately be reached for comment.

Jonas said the forestry commission at the time suspected that the change in tree spacing was made for budgetary concerns. In Oak Park, she said, it costs about $200 to $350 to install a single tree, depending on the caliper, or diameter, of the tree.

She acknowledged that the change in minimum spacing could increase the cost to the village, which installs roughly 400 trees a year currently, according to Jonas.

The report released Tuesday night at the village board meeting, however, said there would be no fiscal impact from reducing the spacing.


Reader Comments

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Scott, Tree historian & amateur Dendrologist  

Posted: April 12th, 2014 2:57 AM

Misinformed by Municipal Arborist, private tree owner let Ash succumb 2 EAB whose root's supporting Oak. 2 weeks after removal, 287 y.o. legacy Oak then fell. Green Ash has 300, & White 6OO yr lifespan. Oldest lost in OP so far, 152 & 2@136. We C 2day how spectacular crowns of solitary Elms cover 1/2 side of neighbors & cross street. I agreed with farther apart plantings, depending on species. Unimpeded spread of limbs & multiple leaders producing poor attachments need correction 1st 20 yrs

Scottie Ash Tree seed  

Posted: April 11th, 2014 7:26 PM

Semelka cleared parkways of historic trees like 100+ 1's Wright & Jensen installed as a living ingredient 4 Prairie style which were today only teenagers, & supplied press w/misinformation and theory, while right across borders City & RF successfully saved 36,000 Ash with in-house workers for $48-$60ea every 3 yrs until glutinous borers inevitably kill off only food supply by 2020. RF proved historic Elms can b easily cured too! New trees need 2b trained b4 20yo. Lets save the rest & plant best.


Posted: March 21st, 2014 10:42 AM

More Trees, Really? Then why did crews remove 3 trees on the east end of Greenfield today? Just days after a visit from a "Tree Hugger with a Tape Measure" - now this?! No, they are not diseased, nor are they prone to attack. Trimmed just last year but now, they just must not be the right breed or type for the neighborhood, so down they come. Maybe that resident requested the removal, but this happened on BOTH sides of the street. Just disappointed and concerned about these "improvements".

Jeff Schroeder from Oak Park  

Posted: March 5th, 2014 9:08 AM

The old fifty foot rule sounds like an excuse for not replacing trees that are lost to lightning and other causes. There are some big gaps in our neighborhood where trees once stood. I do agree that quality does matter. We benefit from slower growing trees like oaks and maples. We should ban mulberries.

Jan's Opinion from Oak Park  

Posted: March 5th, 2014 1:40 AM

I am thrilled to hear about the return to the 35' spacing. I referred to our last forester as the de-forester. If he had put more money into growing trees rather than cutting them down, my block, for one, would look a heck of a lot better. Now if we could fix the parking problems, maybe Oak Park would be worth the taxes we pay. Well that and shoveling...never mind.

Diane Fascione from Oak Park  

Posted: March 4th, 2014 7:50 PM

Smelka was quoted in a local paper when he proposed the change that he was tired of residents calling him and saying they wanted a tree in front of their house. Good riddance as far as he is concerned. And kudos to the Board for wanting to reverse this terrible 50 ft requirement.

Susan Keating from Oak Park  

Posted: March 4th, 2014 7:12 PM

I think any resident who fails to nurture and water a new tree should be charged for the replacement.

Chris Carrier  

Posted: March 4th, 2014 4:53 PM

Is he the one who indiscriminately chopped down all the ash trees rather than attempt treatment, including the one in my front yard? I wish him well in his new private sector job.

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