The city of Portsmouth and the Scioto County Government are finding themselves in peculiar situations on how to move forward, after the county cut down some trees that caused an injury last week, in violation of city ordinance.
Late last Thursday an elderly woman fell on the sidewalk outside of the Scioto County Department of Job and Family Services. The woman fell because the roots of a nearby tree had forced the sidewalk to be elevated several inches.
The fall caused injury to the woman’s face and one of her legs; she had to be transported to a local hospital for treatment.
After learning of the injury the Scioto County Commissioners ordered the trees removed.
Scioto County Commissioner Bryan Davis said he called Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen to advise him of the situation and that the county intended to remove the trees and fix the sidewalk on Friday morning.
According to Davis, Allen said it was OK and that he would alert the cities Shade Tree Commission about the situation.
At Monday’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, Sixth Ward Councilman Tom Lowe asked Allen if he gave permission to have the trees cut.
“I’m no sure what all got said,” Allen said. “I think what got said was that I didn’t care and I would forward it to the Tree Commission, but I can’t even remember if I was asked. I think I was told the trees were being cut down, and you can say, how can you not know? I was caught off guard. The phone call was about something totally different, and at the end of it, it was – ‘by the way somebody is going to cut the trees.’ I said I would forward that on to the Tree Commission, which I did that night. I did say – ‘I don’t care because I’ve got a lot bigger problems to worry about than trees.”
Allen said he thought by forwarding the information to the Tree Commission, there would be a discussion. However, before 8 a.m. Friday, the trees were cut down.
The city had issue with the county removing the trees because it violates city ordinance, which carries a potential penalty of $500 a tree.
Prior to cutting the trees down last week a number of county officials had attempted to seek appropriate approval to remove the trees through the city Shade Tree Commission dating back to 2014.
One of the concerns expressed by the city came from Portsmouth Solicitor John Haas, “this whole situation has put the solicitor’s office in a very bad spot because the commissioners went and knowingly cut the trees, well-aware of the city ordinance. And now they’re asking for a special dispensation, basically, unapologetically saying we did it because we were worried about people. The problem that I have is that anybody up and down Chillicothe Street can now go out and cut their trees if I treat the county any different. So they put my office in a difficult position.”
The incident occurred in the city’s first ward where Kevin W. Johnson is the council representative. Add to that, the fact that Johnson has been involved in the Tree Commission for a number of years, and you have the recipe for a reaction to the tree incident.
“I was furious to read about and hear and get emails about the trees being cut at Job and Family Services, especially when I know that on Dec. 12 of 2014, Job and Family Services and the county was made aware of what essentially our tree expert from the ODNR (Ohio Department of Natural Resources Arborist) Ann Bonner provided them an outline of what can be done with those trees,” Johnson said. “They ignored it for almost exactly two years. Interestingly, one of the things recommended was to remove the concrete and lay new sidewalk and obviously shave the root, which is cheaper than the route that they took. Now they’re going to have to dig out the fairly large root system in order to plant a new tree, in order to lay down a sidewalk now.”
The Daily Times obtained a copy of the letter sent to the Tree Commission by Bonner in 2014 that contained a recommendation as to how to handle the situation. She began the letter with – “Thanks for the opportunity for input regarding the Scioto County Job and Family Services proposal to removal all of the streetscape trees around their facility to address sidewalk issues. They’re 16 trees in their streetscape. 14 trees are presumably on the city right-of-way.”
As the letter went on she offered the following recommendation: “If there are trees that have to be removed, I would recommend that the stumps be ground and the pits be back filled with soil, but not topped with concrete. This will reduce the amount of concrete and gravel base that must be purchased and will keep the planting site open for future trees. There are many varieties of trees that can function in a sidewalk cut out and not conflict with surrounding infrastructure. With these cost saving options in mind, I would suggest that the County ask for quotes from potential contractors with these options so that comparisons can be made.”
When asked about the county response to the recommendations in 2014 Paige Robbins, director of the Scioto County Department of Job and Family Services said, “One of her (Bonner) recommendations was that we could take the cement out, take the trees out, put the cement back and put temporary pavers in those openings (where the trees were located). In the future, somewhere down the road we could put trees back.”
Robbins said that’s the option she favored. She said that option would give the county time to fix the sidewalk and plant new trees. But, it was not a recommendation the shade tree commission approved of.
With the shade tree commission not approving of the favored recommendation, it caused Robbins to in her words, “go back to the drawing board.”
Robbins said Bonner came back to the area a second time to make another proposal, once the commission rejected the proposal the county favored.
“She had some various options. She seemed a little lenient because one of the proposals was to destroy the trees, while taking them out and putting the pavers back,” Robbins said.
She said the county put out a bid notice to complete the recommended work. Once bids were received and reviewed, a contract was never awarded.
Robbins said she hesitates to talk particulars because the county may be interested in bidding the work out again.
Robbins said now the issue has become a priority for the county, because of safety.
Scioto County Loss Prevention Officer Jim Lintz with the assistance of the counties insurance carrier will develop a long term plan to address the trees.
“We have an annual inspection of buildings with CORSA (County Risk Sharing Authority), they send a representative down to make sure that we are correcting any visible violations or safety issues. He (the inspector) came down and I went with him and wrote a report with him,” Lintz said. “One of the very obvious problems was sidewalks being a hazard.”
Lintz said when developing a long term plan to address trees around county property the commissioners have to ask themselves — do they want to address the trees currently damaging the sidewalk or do they want to address all of them?
Lintz said this issue needs corrected sooner than later.
“If we’re knowledgeable of this and if we know what the risk is, if we don’t correct it, we (county) have to absorb the liability on our own,” Lintz said.
Lintz said there are five locust trees around county property on Seventh Street and Court Street in the city.
Lentz said the locust trees have a very shallow and big root system.
“Even those that are not causing damage today, you can just plan on it tomorrow,” Lintz said. “It will be up to the commissioners as to how they want to approach it.”
The commission was aware of the situation because the Daily Times obtained notes from the Shade Tree Commission meeting held on Jan. 7, 2015 which read – “There has been no official response to JFS (Job and Family Services) with regard to their request to cut down all 16 trees that grow around their facility because of sidewalk issues. However, Ann Bonner and Bill Beaumont (City Service Director) met with Jim Lintz who works for Scioto County. Mr. Beaumont gave Mr. Lintz a copy of Mrs. Bonner’s recommendations. These include (1) Retain the trees as they are sound and healthy; (2) If trees are removed, do not pave over the planting sites but prepare them for other trees to be planted; (3) Get quotes from potential contractors for the work Ann Bonner suggested if the trees are taken out.”
When asked if the county intended to approach the Portsmouth Shade Tree Commission when they want to remove the other trees, Crabtree said, “I think it would be a waste of time, Paige Robbins has already tried that for years. You can’t wait years for a solution when you’ve got people falling down routinely.
“The sidewalks are our responsibility and we have to do something, we can’t just let people fall and get hurt. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out there is only one solution, you fix it or you do not fix it, that’s it. “
At the conclusion of the council meeting it was determined Haas would make a decision as to how to ultimately handle the situation, on behalf of the city.
Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis. Reach Wayne Allen at 740-353-3101 ext. 1933 or @WayneAllenPDT on Twitter.