Newton resident doesn’t want to cut down tree

Kurt Lawrence of Newton leans against his mulberry tree, which has branches and limbs over a back alley. The City of Newton wants him to cut down the limbs. Wendy Nugent/Harvey County Now

By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now

NEWTON—A large mulberry tree on Kurt Lawrence’s property is at least 75 to 100 years old, older than the Newton city ordinance that could mean the death of the tree. The tree is in his backyard, spreading its branches over the alley to the north, which because of their size, appear to have been doing that for quite some time. The boughs allegedly in violation of an ordinance are at least 50 years old, Lawrence said.

“The tree is dear to me,” Lawrence said, standing outside by the tree. “It’s not just any old tree.”

The ordinance Lawrence allegedly is violating with his tree states the branch overhang should be at least 15 feet tall measured from the crown (center) of the alley upward, Lawrence said. The city also is saying that the clearance should be 15 feet skyward, measuring 3 feet from the edge of the alley road to his property on the ground, Lawrence said. That’s where the alleged ordinance violation is happening, since Lawrence’s tree is lower than 15 feet at that point. “

“That would take the whole thing out,” Lawrence said about having to cut off the boughs.

City of Newton Director of Communications Erin McDaniel said the city ordinance requires any trees hanging over any street or alley clear 15 feet. She said Lawrence’s tree has 10 feet at one point. Since receiving the initial citation, Lawrence has gotten a couple more from the city, McDaniel said. “I believe he requested that it go to court because he doesn’t want to cut the tree,” she said. “It’s an impressive tree.”

She said the ordinance is in place because of large vehicles going through streets and alleyways, like firetrucks, UPS trucks, a sewer line vector truck and other large trucks. “Any of these high-profile vehicles can be damaged by these low-hanging tree limbs,” McDaniel said. She also said a complaint was filed with the city regarding the tree limbs but that they don’t release who made the complaint. “We certainly sympathize with Mr. Lawrence in his affection for the tree and desire to keep it,” McDaniel said. Lawrence said Hondo Collins, superintendent of Newton parks, and Burke Lewis, who retired from that same position, told him the ordinance was created in the 1970s, when trash trucks used to go through the alleys to pick up trash, which they no longer do. Lawrence also said a sewer truck goes through the alley, but it can access the sewer in his alley without going under the tree boughs. There are two boughs of the tree that hang to the north over the alley. Lawrence believes cutting those boughs would upset the balance of the tree, and it would die. “That’s probably going to cost me a grand if I take the whole thing down just to follow a city ordinance that was written when trash trucks came through here,” Lawrence said. Lawrence said his wife suggested he compromise and just take down one of the boughs, the lower one. The Newton resident became aware of the problem several months ago. “Back in May, I got the letter,” Lawrence said. “I had a dead tree on the property and had branches hanging over the alley.” The dead tree was at the front of the house, and Lawrence had it taken down by a professional tree remover, and he said he took down branches over the alley. He said Westar comes every few years and trims branches. Lawrence tells them not to cut certain ones, and they work with him, he said. “I did that, and two months go by, and I thought everything was fine and dandy,” he said, adding he thought the first letter was confusing. That letter stated, “We are sending you this notice, due to complaints from drivers of tall vehicles like trash and delivery trucks, regarding tree branches from your property hanging over the street. These branches are scraping the trucks and could damage hydraulic lines on overhead lift equipment. Each individual property is responsible for the trees in their yard, including those branches hanging over into the street.” Since the letter referred to a street and not an alley, he thought it referred to his front yard instead of the alley, and he has no trees out front. Then in July, he received another letter in the mail from the City of Newton. “As a courtesy to you, we are giving you a reminder that you need to come into compliance with City Code 20-610 (pruning),” the letter stated. “This violation was originally sent to you on 5015-20.” It stated the latest inspection of his property on July 24 revealed non-compliance of the violation. The letter requested the Lawrences give them a call or abate by Aug. 10 to tell them what the abatement plan will be. “Failure to act by this date will result in us taking legal action to remedy this violation,” the letter from Jerry Lewis, environmental control officer, stated. “Any cost associated with this will be assessed to you the property owner. Thank you for your concern and timely attention to this matter.” Lawrence said he called Lewis after getting the letter to see what the problem was. Lawrence isn’t sure who alerted the city to his tree. “All it takes is one person to make a complaint to turn something in,” said Lawrence on Monday, the first day of his retirement from the post office, after working there 33 years. Lawrence said he attended the Newton City Commission meeting last week to ask if the ordinance could be amended and was told no. Commissioners expressed sympathy for Lawrence, however, had their hands tied as the issue had already entered the city court system, which is independent from the commission. “Because it’s being taken to court, they can’t amend the ordinance,” Lawrence said. The Newton resident also said the city itself is violating city codes, like the ordinances that state a small to medium tree needs to be 4 feet from a curb and large trees need to be 6 feet from curbs. He pointed to trees across the street on city property that appear to be violating that. Lawrence doesn’t want to see his tree come down. “It has a lot of history with this house,” he said, referring to his home that was built in the 1880s.