Sunday, August 3, 2003

Trees are nice, but at what price?


Some taxpayers balk at costs

By Erica Solvig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Colorful flowers and decorative plants liven up the center islands along Mason-Montgomery Road in Mason.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
MASON - Manicured roadway medians, baskets of blooming flowers and row after row of maple, oak, elm and pear tree saplings dot the suburban landscape.

They're pretty. And pricey.

Just look at Mason, where taxpayers will spend more than $600,000 over the next two years designing road medians and mowing lawns. In Montgomery, they'll spend $9,000 on 20,000 annuals planted in the city's 220 hanging baskets, 60 large planters and roadway medians. West Chester Township spends $60,000 to $70,000 a year on flowers and trees along Union Centre Boulevard.

Nationwide taxpayers are investing hundreds of millions of dollars on such beautification efforts. Tristate communities that have the national "tree city" designation spent more than $3 million last year on community forestry projects alone, a figure that doesn't include flower planting or efforts by communities such as West Chester that don't have the designation.

Local leaders say the tree-lined streets and decorative gardens are a matter of civic pride and an amenity suburbanites expect. But some local residents who must help foot the bill are questioning the spending.

And critics say the projects are necessary because sprawling suburbs pave over lovely countryside, then substitute by plunking store-bought trees in the middle of congested roadways or around strip shopping centers.

"It's always a good idea to invest in so-called 'green infrastructure,' " says Clifton resident Glen Brand, Sierra Club's Midwest regional representative. "But it makes more sense to plan better in new suburbs to preserve the green space and farmland that makes the landscape attractive in the first place."

Officials in some of the Tristate's most active tree-planting communities wonder how anyone could fuss about trees and flowers.

"Most people see it as an investment into the community," Mason City Manager Scot Lahrmer says. "That helps their property values. It also helps the quality of life here."

Lovely tree island

Beautification is no longer just planting a few trees along the side of the street. Officials say the aim now is to make even highly industrialized areas look like quiet residential streets with the use of more greenery and road medians with built-in irrigation systems.

Such beautification projects are increasing across the country, but not necessarily for good reasons, says Jim Kunstler, author of the Geography of Nowhere, which critiques suburban landscapes. The New York-based author has spoken at the University of Cincinnati and will return to the area Sept. 12 at the Hilton Netherland Plaza Hotel downtown for the Cincinnati Preservation Association's Fall Forum.

"What they're basically doing is exterior decoration," he says. "All over the country, there's an emphasis on greening up all the pavements. I happen to think it's a misguided waste of money and effort."

Some projects do come at the cost of developers, not taxpayers. Many cities require a certain number of trees or shrubs to be planted in exchange for allowing residential or commercial development.

But other projects are paid with city funds and state grants.

"They're not replacing ecologies, which is to say, communities of living things," Kunstler says. "They're just using trees as decorations for suburban-sprawl infrastructure."

The Tristate communities' spending on beautification projects help make Ohio the nation's top state for Tree Cities - 231 this year. The National Arbor Day Foundation, which issues the Tree City designations, says Ohio ranks No. 1 because of its strong state urban forestry program and regional support network. Spending by Tristate Tree Cities topped $3 million last year,

Localities named Tree Cities must spend at least $2 per resident on green projects, have an established tree board to ensure care of the community's trees and an ordinance requiring care of the trees.

The award was given to 42 cities in 15 states in the program's first year, 1976. Today, the list includes more than 3,000 communities in all 50 states.

Fairfield, for instance, figures it spends $5.40 for every man, woman and child each year on tree planting and maintenance and leaf pickup. But the $243,000-a-year program does more than just make Fairfield prettier, says Jim Bell, Fairfield's parks and recreation director.

The greenery and cleanup projects also enhance property values and project a healthy civic image, he says.

"Its not like we're coming in and plowing down a forest," he says of development in southern Butler County. "This was farmland that maybe a hundred years ago, the farmers cleared everything."

Fairfield is also considering a proposal to get landowners to contribute to beautification along Ohio 4. The city has earmarked $2 million over the next few years for landscaping.

Resident Tom Burer believes the costs should not be borne by property owners.

"I'm not against beautification," Burer says. "We just don't think it should be forced by legislation. If Fairfield wants to put the landscaping at the major intersections, then they need to pay for it through a grant and not put in on the backs of people who are trying to make a living at their business."

West Chester resident Wallace Schulze was among the residents who balked at his Butler County township's latest beautification plan.

Since 2000, the township has been paying $60,000 to $70,000 for flowers and trees along Union Centre Boulevard, an increasingly busy and congested section off Interstate 75. The township proposed this year putting the cost on property owners, depending on the acreage of their property. For Schulze, who owns an 11-acre property with a pond and pavilion, the proposed assessment was $1,567 a year.

"There were many aspects of this thing that were unfair," the senior citizen says. "What they're doing is beautifying the area over there where there's restaurants, hotels and where the facilities are. If they do it by acre, it makes my cost three times or more than some income-producing businesses."

West Chester officials have since decided to revamp that original proposal and are working on a new funding plan.

Enhancing image, pride

In Warren County, Lebanon is spending $40,000 on trees this year - up from the $27,000 it spent planting 190 trees in 2002.

City officials say the increase is because the state is requiring they plant trees downtown once the $11.5 million largely grant-funded Main Street construction project is finished.

City Manager Pat Clements said the project will "create a sense of pride in the community."

In Mason, a Tree City for four years, well-groomed medians separate traffic on the major thoroughfares, such as Mason-Montgomery and Tylersville roads.

In April, the city council approved a $312,639 contract with Natorp Inc. to design and install the flora and electric lamps for seven medians along Mason-Montgomery Road and Lakeside Drive. The city anticipates a $15,000 grant will offset some costs, but Mason's portion will be close to $300,000.

Council also agreed to pay $358,000 for the 2003 and 2004 seasons for citywide work, including mowing and replacing dead trees the public works department can't handle.

Tristate Tree Cities

With 231 tree cities statewide, Ohio leads the nation in the number of Tree Cities designated by The National Arbor Day Foundation. Ohio is followed by Illinois with 174 cities, Wisconsin 143, California 141, and New Jersey and Florida, both with 128. Indiana comes in 24th with 47 Tree Cities.

Kentucky places 34th, with 27 communities taking the award. That includes the following local Tree Cities (listed with how many years they have had the designation):

Ohio: Cincinnati (22 years); Dayton (12 ) Fairfield (8); Forest Park (13); Glendale (7); Greenhills (18); Lebanon (12); Lockland (16.); Mariemont (12); Mason (4); Montgomery (7); Oxford (7); Springboro (7); Springdale (11); Terrace Park (18); Waynesville (6.), Wyoming (9).

Kentucky: Covington (1 year); Florence (11); Fort Thomas (12).

Arbor Day Foundation Web site

E-mail esolvig@enquirer.com




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