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Ordinance requires property owners to remove diseased and infected trees at their own expense

Private property owners will be required at their expense to remove from their property trees diagnosed with certain diseases and pests under a new ordinance approved Monday night by the Willmar City Council.

The council approved the ordinance after holding a public hearing. The ordinance provides for the eradication of tree diseases and pests, primarily addressing Dutch elm disease, oak wilt disease and ash trees infected with the emerald ash borer, said Holly Wilson, acting public works director.

The ordinance had been recommended by the council's Public Works/Safety Committee.

For nearly 40 years, the city has been removing elm trees diagnosed with Dutch elm disease from private property at no cost to the property owner and from public property at city expense.

As result of the removal process, few elm trees remain on public and private property in Willmar.

The new ordinance says that whenever the city tree inspector finds with reasonable certainty that infection or the danger of infection exists, the property owner will be directed to remove the nuisance tree from their property at their expense.

If the property owner does not remove the diagnosed tree within 30 days of receiving written notice from the city, the city will hire an agent to remove the tree and forward the cost to the property owner, Wilson said.

The only person to speak during the hearing about the ordinance was Jeff Palmer of New Brighton. He is upper Midwest regional sales manager for Arborjet, a Roseville company that works with cities and counties in three states to treat trees infected with emerald ash borer.

Palmer said cities have found that treating trees infected with the emerald ash borer at the proper time can be less expensive than removing the trees.

"I do applaud you for passing this ordinance,'' he said. "Removing infected wood is one of the best methods of isolating the pest, although it will still spread.''

Council member Jim Dokken wondered if a property owner can call the city and ask for the tree inspector to investigate.

City Administrator Michael Schmit said the city often times would not be aware that a tree had been infected by the emerald ash borer until the pest was actually causing damage. He said tree inspectors will be certified by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to identify a tree that has been infected and a notice will be sent.

But if people have questions or recognize potential problems in their neighborhood or on their property, said Schmit, they could call the city offices "and we will be prepared to respond.'' The 30-day time limit was taken from other ordinances that were used a model for the local ordinance, he said.

The ordinance was written to combat the threat of the emerald ash borer, a non-native beetle discovered in the Detroit, Mich., area in 2002. The insect kills all ash trees in its path and spreads mainly by the movement of firewood and nursery stock, according to state and local officials familiar with the insect.

The beetle has been found in 13 states including Minnesota where movement of infected ash wood was prohibited in three counties last year to help slow the borer's spread.

The committee discussed Willmar's tree maintenance policy in April because the beetle's Minnesota presence has made it necessary to develop a means to manage the removal and replacement of infected ash trees.

An inventory found that 10,060 of Willmar's 16,255 boulevard trees are ash trees. An additional 20,000 to 30,000 ash trees are located on private property, parklands and woodland areas. Measures to control the borer are mandated and city policy should reflect state and federal statutes, according to a report from the committee.