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Cottonwoods concern city

Looming cottonwoods pose threats, raise issue of city ordinance

They’re beautiful trees, those stately cottonwoods. They stand tall in gnarled magnificence all across Rapid City.

They’re also dangerous trees that can be destructive to private and public property, especially when the wind blows.

Just ask Harriet Young. The power lines to her house on West Main Street came down under the weight of a cottonwood limb during the windstorm Wednesday night and Thursday.

But it wasn't her tree. It was her neighbor's — one of a half-dozen big, old cottonwoods that loom along the fence between the two properties.

This wasn't the first time one of those trees has shed a branch that caused a mess or a limb that knocked down Young's power lines. She lost power just last spring when a larger limb fell — that time on a calm day.

And falling limbs were a problem before that.

But it isn't the power lines or other property that worries Young the most.

"It's safety, too," she said. "I have great-grandchildren who play in the backyard."

Young isn’t unique in Rapid City in her worries about damage or injuries from large trees and falling branches. It's something that urban forester Gary Garner watches and worries over as part of his city job.

It's also something homeowners, and especially prospective homeowners, should keep in mind when looking at that dream house.

"People worry about what it might cost to repair or replace a roof, but they have no clue what it will cost to take care of a tree," Garner said.

Cottonwoods ban be particularly troublesome. Looking up at the big trees with their branches grown out in all directions at all angles, Garner was calculating treatment costs that could reach up in the $15,000 to $20,000 range.

Young said her neighbor, who couldn't be reached for this story, hasn't shown any interest in such work. And while Young hates to press the point with someone next door, she also believes property owners should be responsible for trees that reach in threatening ways over other property.

"We're responsible for everything we own. Why not trees?" she said. "If we choose to let them grow out over other people's property, they should be responsible for them."

That's a complicated issue, according to Garner and city Alderman Ron Sasso. They have begun a discussion and investigation into possible changes in city ordinances related to tree problems like Young's.

Both say they are a long way from a solution.

"It's real sticky," Sasso said. "We don't want people saying, 'I don't like your tree because it blocks my view.' The idea is to find a balance where a problem tree or problem trees exist, those that might be older and present a great risk. Maybe we can do something with code enforcement."

Right now, the city can do something in forcing property owners to act if the tree is dead or diseased. But if it's a living tree free of significant disease, it doesn't come under the existing ordinance.

"In situations like this, there's really nothing we can do," Garner said.

Despite their tendency to drop big debris, the cottonwoods on the other side of Young's property line are not diseased or dead. Sasso found that out the first time he visited Young's place with Garner.

"I figured they were diseased trees," he said. "But Gary said, 'No, they're not diseased. They're old and they get weak, but they're not diseased.'"

That's the thing about cottonwoods. They grow big and they grow wide, and they get heavy branches at odd angles that are prone to break and fall. That's why the city's monitoring-and-removal program on potentially dangerous trees on city property deals with a lot of cottonwoods.

An incident a few years back proved the point of concern. A limb fell from a large cottonwood along Canyon Lake Drive west of Baken Park and landed on the hood of a passing vehicle.

It was a near miss. A few feet difference and somebody could have been killed, Garner said.

From Young's front yard, Garner nodded at a limb reaching out over West Main and wondered about its potential for disaster. Young worries about that limb, too.

"It's going to fall down and kill somebody," she said.

Garner recognizes that possibility, or at least the real potential for injury. He sees the same potential in a large limb right above Young's house.

"If that limb falls, and it's only a matter of time, what is it going to do?" he said.

The wind storm left city employees and private homeowners with cleanup duties from trees, limbs and branches. It also left Sasso and Garner with a sense of urgency about getting started in a search for solutions that could involve a change in city ordinances.

"When you look at Harriet's situation, she's not isolated. I feel we have to do something," Sasso said. "It's a question of what and how we do it so we don't go too far. It's finding the balance that's going to be the hardest."

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

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