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The Oak park chain-saw massacre

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Should 50-year-old elm trees die in Oak Park so that new sod can be watered in Naperville? The Du Page Water Commission, endowed with vast powers by the Illinois legislature, has embarked on a mammoth multimillion-dollar project to bring Lake Michigan water to the parched and thirsty instant communities springing up in the western suburbs. Their contractor, Kenny Construction of Wheeling, has burrowed through the west side of Chicago and fetched up in Oak Park. The tunnel, on its inexorable march to the hinterlands, has encountered the wrath of the village's citizenry.

The contract with the village of Oak Park (recently designated a "Tree City USA") calls for the water commission to tunnel along Jackson Boulevard. The contract permits pruning of trees along the route to accommodate the 100-foot-tall crane that will be used to lay the 90-inch-in-diameter water pipe. On Thursday, March 16, the "pruning" turned into the Oak Park chain-saw massacre, as trees that had survived Dutch elm disease fell.

Jackson Boulevard was once an exceptionally pleasant thoroughfare, with tall trees arching to meet overhead in lacy patterns in winter and green foliage in summer. Today the block between Lombard and Taylor has three fresh stumps, each broad enough to serve as the table for a toddler's tea party, each surrounded by yellow sawdust. Most of the other trees in that block have been cut back so far it seems unlikely they can ever revive; several are totally limbless and look like reject telephone poles. Other blocks have suffered as well. Out of 57 trees cited in a March 21 report by the village forester, nine have already been removed, ten "should be removed," and seven have undergone "major pruning."

Richard Zaun lives several blocks south of Jackson on Roosevelt Road, but his wife, Lois Jean, was visiting friends at Lombard and Jackson when the branches--and trees--started coming down. She called Richard, who got on the telephone to the village manager--to the forestry department, to the public-works department, to the water commission, to everyone else he could think of who might do something. On Monday, March 20, the Zauns went into high gear.

While Richard made more telephone calls, Lois Jean stood under a tree threatened by a man with a hard hat and chain saw. "The tree cutter told her he would call the police department, and she told him, 'That's the only way you're going to cut down this tree--to put me in jail,'" says Richard, a retired nurseryman who calls the trimmers "tree butchers." When his and other telephone calls brought assorted village officials to the scene, the work was stopped. But only temporarily, he claims. "They came back at 3, and so did my wife." Zaun estimates the damage at an average $3,000 per tree.

Sue Helfer, who was a village trustee until the April 4 elections, says the overly enthusiastic tree trimming was first brought to her attention by a resident who called to say, "They cut down my crab tree!"

"It was a little tiny one that didn't stick out," Helfer says. "It doesn't make much sense to me." She says that when she notified village manager J. Neil Nielsen on Friday morning, he said, "Trees? What trees?" No one at village hall, it seems, envisioned the water commission's concept of "pruning."

The village board meeting of Monday, March 20, ran extraordinarily long; the citizen-comment period, strategically placed at the end to discourage participation, didn't take place until after midnight. But three hardy souls hung on and, says Helfer, "just harangued us about the trees. I think it's the first time I've seen the whole board so upset. We negotiated that contract very carefully, in the best interests of Oak Park and its residents, and I think we all felt a very real sense of betrayal."

On Tuesday morning Helfer went to the site. "There was a guy with a chain saw. There was supposed to be no more chain sawing. He had a truck with no vehicle sticker, no license plates, no name on it--which is illegal. It was like the mystery tree trimmers--more like the mystery tree killers." Helfer says she and her companions escorted the anonymous trimmers out of town. She also complains that the surviving trees haven't been adequately protected; according to the contract, they we re all to be boxed. "In my opinion, that doesn't mean made into boxes!" Last week there were still no signs of protection for any of the trees.

Bill Cokenower--the president of Cokenower Tree Experts, Inc., the subcontractor--denies that any of his vehicles were unlicensed. Moreover, he states, "They're pruned the way they're supposed to be pruned, the trees are. The contract calls for cutting them curb to curb. Sometimes that meant we cut 'em back so far there wasn't much left."

Cokenower says he met several times with village officials, including village forester Mike Stankovich. "They went through and marked the trees that were supposed to come down. Without their telling us, we don't cut anything down. Any tree that came down was already marked.

"We just want to go in and get the job done. The village is trying to make Kenny and they're trying to make me the fall guys." Cokenower claims to have a list from village officials that specifies that the work done was at the forestry department's request. Tom Wagner, the project superintendent for Kenny Construction, refused to comment. Company president Patrick Kenny also declined to comment. "As we are an employee of the Du Page Water Commission we don't make any commentary."

Robert Martin, assistant to the commission's general manager, says, "We have an agreement with the Village of Oak Park for the installation of water mains, and the contractor did what he was supposed to do. The trees that were cut to that degree were done at the request of Oak Park."

"We were out there with the tree company," says Stankovich, "and I think there was some misinterpretation on both our parts. Some trees were pruned back more severely--they cut back the limbs all the way to the tree. That's where the misinterpretation happened. A couple were to be taken out because they needed room." Jackson Boulevard residents had been sent a letter over Stankovich's signature, informing them that some pruning would be done.

Stankovich was on vacation the week of the cutting and pruning; he returned on Monday to find the damage done. He hopes to save the severely pruned trees. "We're going to keep an eye on the trees, do deep root fertilization, and see how they do. It's going to be many, many years before they're going to be like that again," he says, and then adds, "I don't think it serves any purpose to blame anybody."

Richard Zaun thinks laying blame does serve a purpose; he starts with village manager Neil Nielsen and works down. "[Nielsen] claims he didn't know anything. [Department of Public Works director Horst] Melcher claims he didn't know what was going on. It's such a big project--he should have made it his business to know. He should have gotten into his car and driven the two blocks south from village hall. On Friday I left messages for Nielsen and talked to Melcher, an engineer, a man in forestry--they were all aware of my concerns while the butchering was taking place. On Monday I made a great many calls--I normally keep a telephone log, but that day I made so many I didn't keep track of them."

"I really cannot disagree with him--it really did get away from us," admits Melcher. "We just didn't imagine they would do this. We wanted the pruning so they wouldn't break branches and come back and cut them. We didn't know when they were coming in to do it.

"I first heard about it on Friday the 17th, when a call came in from a citizen. I was shocked when I visited the site--but by then the damage was done." Melcher told the trimmers to stop. He and Nielsen say that the work done on Monday and Tuesday was just cleanup work. All work, they say, has now been stopped until further notice.

"I had feelings of frustration, anger, and even betrayal--betrayal in the sense that I couldn't believe the staff could let this happen," says Bill Staszak, who was the first chairman of Oak Park's forestry commission and was recently reelected village trustee. "This is far beyond pruning--this is the destruction of a beautiful, tree-lined street. My anger has subsided, but my concern is growing. I'm not at all confident that we're going to come to an easy resolution of this. I feel the public works department should have been on top of the project. They should have had a public works employee supervising." Horst Melcher says his department has no such jurisdiction.

Nielsen is a polite, soft-spoken man with a temper that flares when he believes himself wrongly challenged. He says that he has met with the water commission twice, "looking for alternatives." The primary difficulty, he says, is that the commission has access to any public right-of-way. He says that he asked the commission why the pipeline didn't go through Berwyn and Cicero, whose city parents have never been conspicuously proforestry, and that they told him that Jackson Boulevard was a better route.

Evidently, only Commonwealth Edison has the clout to fight the water commission; they refused to drop their power lines where they cross Jackson. To do so, says Nielsen, "would be very, very expensive, and it would leave part of the village without power. They'll have to work around them--lower the crane, go under the wires, and reset."

In his first postmassacre meeting with commission officials, Nielsen says, "We sat down and I told them, 'If there are any more surprises you haven't told me about, let's lay them on the table right now.' I asked them about blasting, and they said that in a small area of Chicago, they encountered bedrock--but they don't anticipate blasting in Oak Park. I told them that if they had any idea of blasting in Oak Park to get it out of their heads right now."

Robert Martin says the water commission is "still evaluating different construction options." But there may not be an alternative to the infamous 100-foot crane, in which case the chopping will have to go on. Martin refuses to speculate. "When we get to that point, well make a decision." According to one village hall source, the commission is expected to "wait ten days, announce they don't have any alternatives, and go back to cutting down trees."

If the water commission decides it has no alternative to the giant crane, Staszak says, "we should explore very carefully our legal alternatives. There are two sides to this: their belief that they have the right to construct in any fashion, and our belief that their rights don't go that far."

Sue Helfer promises something more than legal action. "My feeling is that they think they're just going to come in here and mow our trees down. I think what they went for was the quickest, easiest way of doing it. They weren't counting on our paying attention to our trees," she says. "But they'll have people lined up out there to stop them. They'll have people camping out in sleeping bags. People in Oak Park just aren't going to stand by and let them cut our trees down."

According to a forestry department memorandum from Stankovich to Melcher, as the project marches west 24 trees between Ridgeland and Maple avenues are to be trimmed, 28 are to be removed (a couple for reasons not related to the project), 2 are possible candidates for removal, and 16 are to receive "major pruning."

The fallen giants are to be replaced with new--of necessity younger and smaller--trees. Jackson Boulevard will be rebuilt, a project with a $1.3 million price tag, at no cash cost to the village. "The loss of trees will be a major loss," says Neil Nielsen. "To the people who live in the area, it may not be worth it." But, he says, "People who drive down Jackson will have a new street. There's never a complete and equitable resolution in any of these things.

"I'm hoping that there's a resolution ahead, but I'm not sure that there's going to be one we're pleased with. The Du Page County people and their contractor are very responsive--it's been several months, and this is the first major problem we've had." Does he expect it to be the last? "I wouldn't bet the farm on it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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