City plans to uproot cherished fruit trees

Mark Bauman hopes to save his six fruit trees.Mark Bauman hopes to save his six fruit trees.When Mark Bauman and his wife Janice moved into their quiet Meadowood neighborhood home 16 years ago, one of the things they liked about the property was the small peach tree in the yard. About a year later, Bauman picked out an apple tree to accompany it, but there was one problem.

“I didn’t know where I could fit it,” Bauman recalled from his kitchen table, gesturing out the window. “Then I saw this big strip of land that was not being used at all by the city. I realized, hey, I got all kinds of space.”

He also realized, from the beginning, that there might be some rules about using this space -- the area between sidewalk and street referred to by the city as the public right-of-way. So he called the City of Madison Parks Division to see about planting some trees.

“They said it’s fine if it’s not fruit-bearing or nut-bearing,” Bauman said, hesitating into a smile. “I didn’t tell them who I was or where I lived.”

Bauman planted his apple tree, and then another. Next came the cherry tree, the plum tree, and two pear trees -- a total of six fruit-bearing trees all in a row in the right-of-way.

The trees lived through their 14th birthdays in peace at their home on Lynndale Road, providing fruits for their caretakers as well as dozens of kids and neighbors who routinely stopped by for a juicy snack. Bauman said he never heard a word from the city until July 3, 2012, when he found a sign on his door knob.

The trees have been marked for removal.The trees have been marked for removal.

On the sign, someone had checked off a small box next to the text, “tree removal,” and added the handwritten note, “Call to discuss removal schedule.” 

Bauman’s heart sank with the news.

“Those trees, I love them,” he said. 

And so do his neighbors. With the Meadowood neighborhood recently classified by the city as a food desert, the fresh fruit trees are an oasis. Bauman said during every harvest, groups of kids reliably show up at his door to ask for fruit -- especially the plums.

“They’re the best plums you’ve ever had,” he said. “I give them bags and help them reach the higher branches.”

But in the Parks Division, the fruits are considered a hazard, and therefore do not make City Forester Marla Eddy's list of 68 trees permitted in the right-of-way. 

"Fruit trees have a low-canopy, low-branching structure to them," Eddy said. "As we’re trying to provide city services such as street sweeping or plowing or solid waste pick-up, those vehicles get damaged because they have to ride along the curb edge."

Eddy also noted that fallen fruit on the sidewalks and streets can be dangerous to bicyclists and vulnerable pedestrians. 

According to Ordinance 10.10, the types of trees allowed in the right-of-way are left to the discretion of City Forester Marla Eddy, with the guidance “to promote and enhance the beauty and general welfare of the City.”

Eddy regularly updates her list of permissable trees, which must be approved by the Habitat Stewardship Committee and does not include trees with sizeable fruits or nuts. Residents who want to plant trees in the right-of-way area outside of their house are required to apply for a permit, which Eddy said she only grants for trees that are on her list. 

Somehow, though, the fruit trees made it through more than 14 years either without being noticed, or at least without being bothered. Bauman said the branches would even occasionally get trimmed, he presumed by city employees.

Eddy said to the best of her knowledge, until recently no one ever complained about the fruit trees, and so she never noticed them in a herd of more than 95,000 street trees in the city.

The first complaint, and catalyst of the removal plan, came from the Streets Division, when a worker said the trees were interfering with their job, said Parks Division Community Relations Coordinator Laura Whitmore. 

Mark Bauman looks over comments on the petition to stop the removal of his trees.Mark Bauman looks over comments on the petition to stop the removal of his trees.

But before saying goodbye to his trees, Bauman sent an email to Lisa Valdren, president of the Meadowood Neighborhood Association, who then contacted members of Madison Fruits and Nuts. The cause piqued the interest of at least one member, Kate Heiber-Cobb, who started an online petition to save the trees.

“Here we’re identifying it as a food desert, but we’re going to take down six trees that are providing food for that community -- besides just the interweaving of community building,” said Heiber-Cobb, who is also the coordinator of the Madison Area Permaculture Guild. “When you do math on it, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Heiber-Cobb’s petition had 519 virtual signatures on Saturday, Nov. 3, a week after she upgraded her goal from 500 to 1,000. The comments are fiery and principled, and come from Madisonians as well as others around the state. 

“I firmly believe in the concepts of urban fruit trees and related foraging,” Darin Ripp of Middleton wrote online. “It can help feed people while making them feel more connected to both one another and the land ... Please consider keeping them in their space, so they can grow along with the community.”

In addition to an exception for Bauman’s fruit trees, Heiber-Cobb said she wants to change the rules so that fruit- and nut-bearing trees will be allowed in future cases. She and Bauman have suggested responsibilities for homeowners such as trimming branches and picking up fallen fruit to keep the trees from being burdensome.

However, Eddy said there's nothing that can be done to stop the tree removal at this point. The Parks Division does not grant exceptions and there is no procedure for residents to change her list of approved trees. 

In an effort to keep the fruit in the community, Eddy said the city will relocate the trees to Meadowood Park and cover the cost, which she estimated as between $1,700 and $2,000. 

But Bauman said the trees aren’t likely to survive a move.

“On the face of it, that’s acceptable,” Bauman said. “But there’s no way a 15-year-old tree will survive that. There are roots everywhere.” 

Eddy said the city would contract the job to a company with a hydraulic tree spade that would be able to grab most of the roots out of the ground so the tree would survive.