Courier Staff Writer
The recently formed Ottumwa Reforestation Committee is under way, planning ways to get trees in neighborhoods and open the lines of communication between residents and City Hall.
The ad-hoc committee was formed after frustrations mounted this summer with how residents on Chester Avenue were notified that the trees in their rights-of-way were to be cut down due to an upcoming sewer separation project. Residents awoke one morning to a large “X” painted on the trees slated to be chopped down.
Discussion then turned to banning residents from planting trees and shrubbery in the right-of-way. Currently, city ordinance says property owners may plant in their right-of-way, though the city may, at any time, come in and remove the trees or shrubbery if deemed necessary.
At an August council meeting, Jordan Scupien, GIS (geographic information systems) coordinator for the county, described areas of the city where rights-of-way are not confined to the parking between the sidewalk and the road. In some instances, the right-of-way goes all the way up to a property owner’s front door.
“We’re trying to encourage programs that assist residents in having trees available to plant on their properties,” said City Administrator Joe Helfenberger. “In general, it’s to try to plant a lot more trees in the community for a variety of reasons. One, a lot of trees are older and having staggered growth means we’ll have a plentiful supply. Trees also add to the quality of life and to the attractiveness of the community for people to come here to work and live.”
Right now the committee is just in the design phase, said Committee member Francesca Djordjevich.
“We’re going to do ‘Operation ReLeaf’ and we’ll try to do something around Earth Day in April,” she said.
Operation ReLeaf is a program through Alliant Energy that allows private property owners the opportunity to purchase one or two trees annually for $25 per tree.
Ottumwa has been designated as a Tree City USA for several years, Helfenberger said. The city is also involved in Trees Forever, another Alliant Energy program that works with communities to start volunteer-led tree planting projects in the community.
“I think this group could add a lot to help bolster the efforts of other groups trying to add to the beautification of the community,” Helfenberger said. “It fits well into the plans of several planning groups looking at doing landscaping or streetscaping in the community.”
Djordjevich would like to see a plan developed where the community can come in and get trees for free or at a discounted rate.
“We’re looking for other people interested in helping with the committee,” she said. “Master gardeners, people who have experience raising money, anybody who wants to do something good for the community.”
Right now, the committee consists of Djordjevich, Brenda Case, Helfenberger, Parks Director Gene Rathje and Mayor Frank Flanders. The committee will hold its second meeting today. Those interested in joining can contact City Hall at 641-683-0600.
The work continues on Djordjevich’s block on Chester Avenue, she said.
“It’s been a six-month process,” she said. “The only thing we’re disappointed about is not getting a new road and sidewalks in front. Otherwise, the contractors did an amazing job communicating with us.”
The entire project went smoothly once it got started, Djordjevich said. In total, six trees were cut down on her street, as well as most of the trees on the right hand side of the roads leading up to Evans Middle School.
“But out of the whole thing, something positive is going to come out,” she said. “We convinced the council and they want to change things, too. I think it’s a positive at this point, even though we lost all the trees. It’s still horrible to look out the window and see that. But we’ll all be replanting trees at some time — just not in the right-of-way.”
Djordjevich said the city needs to begin a dialogue with the community when large projects are approaching.
“The city should contact us during the design phase,” she said. “I think the City Council is on board with that. Hopefully in the future, there won’t be all this controversy two weeks before the project starts. It could have been avoided with communication and respect.”