In August 2006, Madison city forester Marla Eddy sent an email to John Fahrney, a city engineer, asking why a road construction firm had damaged the roots of five street trees on Jenifer and Spaight streets even after forestry staff hung "No Root Cut" signs on the trees. It was the second recorded incident that summer.
This damage, she noted, occurred after city staff met with the firm's foreman about yet another incident, this one on South Paterson Street, describing "their contract negligence for the 17-inch[-diameter] ash tree that had been root pruned so heavily that the tree had to be removed for public safety," Eddy wrote.
"I don't understand why this is continually happening with this contractor," she continued. "We can't continue removing street trees because of their mistakes. How do we hold the contractor accountable for damaging the city's street trees? I have folks concerned about their trees from the neighborhood calling me."
This summer, a similar scenario unfolded on Spaight Street, where five trees were cut down due to contractor damage during road reconstruction. Neither contractor has been penalized for the damage, and the city of Madison bore the costs of removing the trees and grinding out the stumps.
Contrast that with Milwaukee, where a strong policy not only protects trees against construction damage but uses a sliding scale to penalize contractors for infractions. James Kringer, Milwaukee's forestry construction supervisor, says the damages to six Madison trees caused by the contractor S&L Underground & Trucking of Sauk City could have brought $25,000 in fines.
Ben Larrabee, a spokesman for S&L, rebuffs any blame: "I'm building the job per the city's plans. It ain't up to me to design or engineer these plans."
In a city that calls itself "Tree City USA," how can this happen?
It happens because city engineering specifications, upon which contractors base their bids, are vague, merely telling the contractor to "use care" around trees and plantings. It happens because the city doesn't pursue damages. But the overriding reason is that street trees in Madison do not elicit as much concern as, say, a streetlight, which contractors must pay for if they break.
Forestry staff say they've had more success with sidewalks than with streets, frequently requiring construction crews to allow more room for tree roots. On streets, they've made similar requests but with inconsistent results. So it remains a hit-or-miss proposition, and with no penalties for infractions, deterrence is nonexistent.
"You tell the main [engineering] person [to leave room for roots], and somehow they don't communicate it down to the person who's actually working in the field," says Marla Eddy. "Where's the responsibility?"
Milwaukee has not left tree preservation to chance.
In the mid-1980s, says Kringer, one prominent Milwaukee-area company, LaLonde Contractors Inc., was assessed $43,000 for cumulative damage to street trees on one construction job. The firm rarely makes big mistakes now.
"Forestry and engineering [staffs] work close together," says current owner Mike LaLonde. "It's spelled out for the contractor, and everyone's bidding the same document. It takes the guesswork out for the contractor."
But most other cities, says LaLonde, take a "lax attitude. It's almost an afterthought, to tell the truth."
In 2006, Eddy proposed a change to public works specifications that would include billing contractors for tree damage. The changes were never passed.