City has limited recourse after 3 acres of neighborhood’s mature trees were bulldozed

A third of a nine-acre plot of land at the southwest intersection of Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive has recently been bulldozed. The land is pictured, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018.

After 3 acres of mature elm, hackberry and Osage orange trees in southwestern Lawrence were bulldozed, there is no guarantee that the longstanding grove will ever be restored.

The owner of the property had the trees cleared after a proposed apartment project failed to win the planning approvals necessary to move forward. Neighbors organized strong opposition to the project, and Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she thinks it’s a tragedy that the property owner decided to take such “extreme action.”

“When you take this, what I consider to be a retaliatory action, on the property it’s just going to continue to foster bad blood between neighbors,” Larsen said. “I don’t believe it’s the way we should be reacting to this type of situation.”

The trees were bulldozed earlier this month from a site near Clinton Parkway and Crestline Drive even though they fell under the city’s “sensitive lands” regulations. Larsen said the property owners were notified Wednesday that they violated city regulations related to erosion control by clearing the land.

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The property is owned by Iowa Street Associates, a company that is in turned owned by a California investment firm, S & P Investment Properties LP. The company has an Overland Park representative, but an attempt to reach him was not immediately successful.

Violation or not, the city’s recourse in such situations is somewhat limited. The city cannot fine the property owner for removing the trees. What the city can do is require that a portion of the trees be replanted under certain circumstances.

Director of Planning Scott McCullough said that if the property is developed in the future, the city can require that some of the trees be replaced, up to 20 percent of the total area of the nine-acre property.

In this particular case, McCullough said trees covered about 3.2 acres, and the sensitive lands designation would have required that about 1.8 acres of trees be preserved. He said that now that most of that 3.2-acre area has been removed, the property owner could be required to plant new trees to get up to that 1.8 acres if the property ever develops in the future.

“We don’t have code authority to require that they go replenish those sensitive lands to their full extent now based on the current code,” McCullough said. “It will be an exercise completed at the time of a development proposal.”

McCullough said that the code would require a 4-inch thick deciduous tree or 8-foot tall evergreen when replacing damaged or destroyed trees.

Meanwhile, apart from a string of trees along the property line, all that remains of the 3-acre grove is a band of overturned dirt. Before they were cleared, the old trees had risen well above the adjacent homes.

The trees bordered the Springwood Heights neighborhood, and residents say they provided a visual and noise buffer from traffic on Clinton Parkway as well as a habitat for animals. Springwood Heights resident David Teska said neighbors were shocked to wake up and find the trees being torn out. Now that the trees are gone, he said not only can they clearly hear all the traffic, but the character of the neighborhood has changed.

“(The removal) broke up the secluded nature of the neighborhood,” Teska said. “And I know that’s a very intangible thing, but it’s one of the reasons why people move to neighborhoods like ours is because of that. And now we’ve got this big open vista that goes all the way to the old Hastings video store.”

McCullough said that while the situation does present a challenge, he sees it as an anomaly and he thinks the city has had success with the sensitive lands standards. When asked whether the code inadvertently creates an incentive for people to just take down trees before a site plan is filed, McCullough said the city has mapped its sensitive lands and could still require that trees be replaced according to the code.

Larsen said she would be open to discussing the city’s options, but that she sees what happened as more of a glitch. She said the city should enforce the replanting requirements that are on the books but that she’s never in a hurry to create additional regulations or fines in such instances.

“You can’t regulate every single twist and turn that somebody is going to try to find to get out of it, but we can put together regulations that provide the level of protection that the citizens want,” Larsen said.