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Who's responsible for the tree in front of my house?
April 23, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Is the tree in front of my house my responsibility or the city's? Is it my problem if a limb falls on a car? What if it gets carpenter ants? Who has to trim it if it's about to hit the house?

— Jessica Sulger, Chicago

Securing a greener city by digital_grid.

Cecil Adams replies:

You've been well trained, Jessica. The prevailing idea in Chicago for as long as I can remember has been: (a) it's the city's tree, but (b) I have to take care of it. In fact it is the city's tree — typically your property stops at the sidewalk. (Sidewalk repair is a topic for another day.) And you do have to rake the leaves, or at any rate you can't expect the city to do it. But you'll be happy to know the big stuff is the city's problem. Granted, it's the city's problem in roughly the same sense that it's your kid's problem to keep her room picked up, which is to say a long time may pass between notifying the responsible party and getting any results. For what it's worth, however, if the tree falls over and flattens your neighbor's Volvo, you won't be the one getting sued. (Needless to say, good luck to your neighbor suing the city.) Since a plethora of tree questions crowds the mind, we'll handle this in the form of a FAQ.

So whom do I talk to?

You have three choices: (1) call 311, the city's nonemergency service number; (2) send in a request via the Web, or (3) call the alderman's office. In theory all should be equally fast, since everything goes into the same dispatch system. However, assuming your alderman isn't a complete mope, I recommend approach number 3, for two reasons. First, you elected this guy! He's a public servant! This is how democracy works! Second, the alderman's office, unlike you, has access to the city's Big Database of Service Requests, and can see what your chances are of getting action before the icecaps melt. Incidentally, at the risk of stating the obvious, when you call the alderman's office, you don't ask for the alderman himself, who's undoubtedly preparing his next speech for the foreign relations committee. You ask for the person in charge of trees.

How long before someone comes out?

Depends on (1) when during the year you call and (2) how urgent the problem sounds. If you call in early spring with a routine request, somebody might come by in two to three weeks, which for Chicago is lightning speed. During peak times in late summer or fall, you're looking at 8 to 12 weeks. (Yeah, I know that's three months. Quit whining. At least they'll probably get to it the same year.) You'll get faster action for more pressing problems, such as a fallen limb blocking the street — maybe even same day, unless a big storm has knocked down half the trees in town. It's worth noting that the Big Database has three priority levels: regular, urgent, and emergency. You're pushing it if you ask the alderman's office to declare an emergency because too-thick foliage on the maple is making your grass turn brown. However, this being Chicago, you could try getting an upgrade to urgent by claiming you're the alderman's bestest bud. Or, more realistically, that the tree is about to hit your house. More on this below.

What kinds of things will city tree crews do?

You have to be realistic. Maybe in Wilmette they'll prune the magnolias into artistic shapes. The services available in the city are a little more basic. Types of trimming tasks offered on the service request screen run to things like cutting back branches that are hitting your roof, clearing limbs blocking streetlights, and removing low and dead branches. There's no category for general pruning, which frankly a lot of city trees could use — one reason so many get bowled over in storms is that the dense foliage catches the wind. (To answer a stupid if understandable question, no, the city doesn't have anybody on staff driving around looking for trees to trim — are you out of your mind? This town operates strictly on the squeaky wheel system — if you don't squeak, it doesn't happen, and sometimes not even then.)

If you call in with a dead branch request or the like, in my experience you can get the crew to do some extra trimming (on that tree — see below), assuming you're on hand to ask. But be warned: The city doesn't want to come back for five years minimum, so they're not going to be doing this with scissors. If you just want a little off the top and sides or are otherwise fussy, consider hiring a private tree service (which needs to be bonded) or, if you're the daredevil type, doing the job yourself.

Will the city trim trees on private property?

No, and I'm sternly advised you shouldn't try sweet-talking them into it — and I can understand why. The garbage crews, sometimes they'll do you little favors, you know what I'm saying? That's because they're in the fricking alley. The tree guys, on the other hand, are on a cherry picker in the middle of the street, and if your nosy neighbor beefs because they trimmed the tree in your front yard, it's not like they can claim they didn't know where the sidewalk was. City crews won't even trim nearby parkway trees with obvious problems if they weren't officially reported, the prime directive being — this approach isn't exclusive to city employees — to cross stuff off the list. (Sorta exception: at least in some wards, the alderman's office can arrange to have all the trees on a block trimmed if the neighbors jointly request.)

That doesn't mean you're strictly on your own if you've got problems with trees on your property. You just need the magic words, plus — how shall I put this — a cooperative fact situation. The strategy: You can get Com Ed or the cable company to trim a tree in your yard if you can make the case that (magic words coming up) it's fouling the wires or about to fall over on them. Little Ed had good luck with the latter line of argument when a big branch on an elm on his property cracked where it joined the trunk. The tree was a good 50 feet in from the alley, but — key point — the big cracked branch leaned in that direction. "It's not actually resting on the wires," he told Com Ed when they asked. "So sure, you could just wait till the next high wind blows the branch over, pulls down the lines, electrocutes a couple neighborhood kids, and knocks out the power from Irving to Montrose. That sounds like a cost-effective plan." They were out the next day. Warning: from a neatness standpoint, the tree-cutting people working for Com Ed make city crews look like Vidal Sassoon. The alderman's office, or anyway some aldermen's offices, will call Com Ed for you if you're too shy to do it yourself.   

What about carpenter ants or other pests?

You can request an "insect, pest or disease inspection." Be prepared for a long list of questions about what the bugs look like, the size of the hole they make, and other details. Not saying everybody involved is necessarily tech-savvy enough to make this work, but in my opinion this is why God gave us cell-phone cameras.

Can I get branches I cut from my own trees hauled away?

Sure. All you need to do is specify whether you're going to pile the branches in the alley or the parkway, and leave enough room, in the alley especially, so cars can get by without scraping off their paint.

Can I request that a tree be planted?

Yes again. The city has various criteria for spacing and so on, but assuming you meet them, you can get a tree. For free! Eventually. (Probably fall — summer isn't optimal tree-planting time.) Just don't request a particular species — you could be in for a long wait. (A really long wait.) If you must have a Japanese maple right now, you're best off hiring an arborist. Just understand that you're donating the tree to the city, and take comfort in the thought that (a) you get to look at the tree as long as you live there, and (b) you're making this a better world.

— Cecil Adams
Tree photo by Pat O'Neil

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