Arborists determining which of 40,000-plus trees in Cedar Rapids need to be removed after derecho

Arborists have started assessing around 40,000 trees in Cedar Rapids to figure out if they’re healthy and safe enough to stay or if they need to be removed.
Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 11:58 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The wind still shakes the treetops on a breezy day in the Vernon Heights neighborhood in southeast Cedar Rapids, even after the Aug. 10 derecho decimated much of the city’s tree canopy.

More trees are likely to come down in the area over the next several months.

“I say, now I’m going to be able to grow grass in my front yard, whereas before, the shade was such that it was tougher,” said John Riccolo, who’s lived in Vernon Heights for about 30 years.

Fluorescent tags and orange spray paint mark trees throughout Riccolo’s neighborhood, and thousands more like them will be appearing around Cedar Rapids in the months to come.

On Tuesday, city council members approved a $3.6 million contract with Jamey Flannery Trucking of Wisconsin to remove hazardous trees and stumps from city right of ways following the derecho.

As part of that contract, arborists will assess every single right-of-way tree in Cedar Rapids. Before the storm, more than 40,000 trees fell into that category, according to City Arborist Todd Fagan.

“They’re going to walk down the street and look at each tree that was damaged and use their education and experience and determine if that tree is still viable to keep, in terms of safety and health, and if it’s not, it would be marked for removal,” Fagan said.

The city has put out a map to show the progress of tree inspections, similar to its debris-clearing map, with crews starting their reviews on the southeast side, including Riccolo’s neighborhood off Mount Vernon Road SE.

“We’re sort of focusing on those downtown core areas first to try to get those addressed before the snow hits,” Fagan said. “Over time, there will be groups in every quadrant of the city.”

Trees that need to be removed are pinned with an orange tag and spray-painted with an orange X. Those that can survive with a trimming are marked with a yellow tag and a spray-painted orange dot.

“It’s entirely possible that we have a tree that may still have plenty of leaves on it, and to the layperson, look just fine,” Fagan said. “But that tree may have various levels of damage that will not make it feasible long-term or could make it very unsafe right now.”

It’s difficult to approximate how many trees remain standing after the derecho, along with how many more will need to be cut down, according to Fagan, but he estimates that fate awaits about half of the tree inventory.

He said the contractor is hoping to finish all inspections in the entire city within the next couple months, before severe winter weather strikes, and it might be a year before all work is done removing and trimming trees.

“It’s not going to be a one- or two- or three-month process,” Fagan said. “It’s going to be quite a while of us dealing with this.”

While many of the trees in Riccolo’s neighborhood now bear one label or the other, he said most of the marked trees he’s seen look like they do need to be removed or trimmed.

His only question is over which of his trees are in the right of way and which are on his property, with three of them standing directly in the middle of the lawn between his house and the road.

Fagan said for neighborhoods with sidewalks, the city right of way falls between the edge of the sidewalk and the street, but for those without sidewalks, people need to use the city’s online infrastructure viewer to determine how far the right of way goes into their property.

“If somebody really, really is not happy with the decision about their tree, either one way or the other, they can contact the city and we will look into it and see if there needs to be a change in decision there,” Fagan said.

People who want to replant a tree in the right of way next to their property must apply for a permit to do so, and the city can regulate which types of trees can be planted in certain spaces. Fagan said the city most likely won’t be in a position to replant trees on a large scale until next spring or fall, after the debris-clearing and tree-assessment processes are complete.

Riccolo said he’s happy this process is moving so quickly, while acknowledging the overall volume of work meant other Cedar Rapids residents wouldn’t see the same progress in their neighborhoods for months. A crew had already sawed down one of the orange-tagged trees in Riccolo’s front lawn earlier this week, which he said saved him hundreds of dollars by not having to hire another contractor to do the job.

Now, he said, if only his Mediacom service would be repaired too.

“We’ve been pretty lucky,” Riccolo said.

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