Residents appalled by city’s tree mess

People living in northside Port neighborhood call cut ashes, brush an aesthetic blight, flooding hazard, but official says there’s no money to clean up area

STANDING AMID THE tree trunks, branches and other debris left behind when the City of Port Washington and We Energies cut down dead and dying ash trees on public land behind their house were Donna and Pete Billmann. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Gesturing around the backyard of her northside Port Washington home last week, Donna Billmann said simply, “This is what we’re left with. It’s horrendous. It looks like a tornado came through.”

Her neighbor Mary Jo Fredrichs, who also lived on Parkview Lane, was equally blunt.

“It’s like a bomb went off,” she said.

Their yards — and those of her neighbors living between Parkview Lane and Parkway Drive along Valley Creek north of Antoine Park — are now bordered by piles of debris, branches, logs and stumps since the city and We Energies took down dead and dying ash trees in the area.

The trees, which are on city land, will be left there to decompose, leaving neighbors to worry not just about the aesthetics but about the potential for flooding.

“If that water rises and takes even a quarter of the debris with it, there’s going to be a problem,” Billmann said. “We’ve lived here for 17 years and we’ve seen the water at all different heights. It sweeps up all the debris it can. 

“Every family here is terrified — if it jams up, what’s going to happen.”

“It seems like they are creating a whole new set of problems,” Billmann’s husband Pete said.

City Forester Jon Crain said he considered the flooding potential but believes it is minimal.

Even if the creek were to take some of the debris downstream, he said, it would probably not cause damage to houses in the area.

“Most of the houses sit up high and are pretty far from the creek,” Crain said. 

It’s more likely that the trees would clog the creek at the Norport Drive culvert, in which case the water would go over the street and back into the creek on the other side, he said.

“If we had to fix the road, we could fix the road,” he said.

Crain said the city had no choice but to cut down the trees, the majority of which were dead ash killed by the emerald ash borer. 

“They’re all dead or close to dead, all infested,” he said, adding many were tall with branches only near the top, making them top heavy.

“The roots are starting to rot as fast as the top is dying,” Crain said, causing trees to topple. “They become extremely hazardous fast.

“Had we left those trees, we would be creating a hazardous situation. That’s why we acted as aggressively and fast as we did.”

The city worked with We Energies and Asplundh, which needed to remove trees near power lines, to take down about 300 trees on city land in the area, Crain said. The city kept the trees it removed as whole as possible and placed them on the edge of the city-owned property and as far from the creek as it could, he said.

The city doesn’t have the manpower or the money to remove the trees and brush, Crain said, nor does it have the ability to get large trucks to the area.

“It would take months and months to remove it,” he said. “The trees are in an unmanaged, natural area. 

“The cost would be astronomical,” he added, noting the city doesn’t own the heavy equipment required for the job.

As worried as they are about the flooding risk, residents are also concerned about the aesthetics of what was once wooded land that led to the Birchwood Hills Nature Center.

Residents were notified before the work was done that the city would be trimming trees and leaving the remains, the neighbors said, but no one realized how many trees would be cut and left to decompose.

“There’s just so much,” Pete Billmann said.

The Billmanns said they may try to remove some of the trees and brush near their property, but there’s too much for them to do it all.

“For most of us, that’s impossible,” Nancy Haacke, who lives on Parkview Lane, said.  

Haacke said she has been asking the city for years to trim the trees along the creek, and while she’s glad that’s been done, the city should do more to address residents’ concerns — even if it means raising taxes.

“They need to think about the people who own homes,” she said. “It’s just a mess, and it’s the city’s responsibility to make it look good.”

Crain said ash trees break down fast, so a lot of the brush will quickly decompose. He is working with school groups and Scouts to plant the area in spring, which will help camouflage, he added.

“This is the worst it’s going to look,” Crain said.

“Trust me, I don’t like it. But if I’m weighing aesthetics against safety, I have to put safety first. I’m extremely confident that this project was the right thing to do.”

But the situation has neighbors seeing red.

“They should have tried to find other options,” Donna Billmann said.

  Ald. Mike Ehrlich, who lives in the neighborhood, said he has been inundated with calls about the tree trimming.

“It’s not the greatest of situations,” he admitted. “The issue is that trying to pull all that wood out is next to impossible.

“At least they got the immediate danger out of the way.”

Ehrlich, who said he too is concerned about potential flooding and aesthetics, said he is trying to come up with a way to mitigate these issues.

“There’s no good solution at this point. Maybe the city can come in and cut the trees up so they can be stacked,” he said. “I know it’s an issue and I’ve been working with (City Administrator) Mark Grams and Jon (Crain) to see if there’s a better solution. It’s just a crummy situation.”


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