URBANA — A massive, 100-foot-tall bur oak still stands at the intersection of Maple and Main streets today because community members intervened.
When Long's Garage sought to expand in 1979, they appeared ready to cut down the 200-year-old tree. At the urging of a University of Illinois forestry class and some encouragement from city officials, the Long family built around the tree.
"When the city found out that this really exceptional tree was on this property, we worked with the owner to preserve it," said city planner Aditi Kambuj. "They built around it, and there's a plaque there to celebrate it."
It is a situation city officials hope to repeat more often in the future. In Tree City, USA, officials are getting ready to launch a new program that they hope will encourage private property owners to preserve their "legacy trees."
At a rate of about two or three per year, Urbana is losing trees that are notable for size, rarity, history or a variety of other reasons. With the support of the city council, a new "legacy tree program" is just about ready to be launched on Arbor Day, April 26, and officials hope they can put a special label on private trees before their owners decide to cut them down.
Under the version the city council supported this week, the program would be largely voluntary — trees would have to be nominated by residents for inclusion as a legacy tree, and the designation would require the consent of the property owner.
If that property owner or a future owner ever decided to cut that tree down, they would first have to go through a public-notice process to alert others and a public hearing before the city's tree commission.
But, in the end, what to do with the tree would still be up to the owner.
The program that city council members supported this week is a slightly watered-down version. City administrators had recommended that a property owner who cuts down a legacy tree be charged $100 per diameter inch of the tree trunk, up to a maximum $1,000.
That money would have been used to plant more trees in the neighborhood where a legacy tree came down.
"The idea is to maintain the canopy in that particular neighborhood," city arborist Mike Brunk said.
City council members removed the fee from the plan before they sent it forward.
"I think this is a question of changing attitudes," said Mayor Laurel Prussing. "It's a cultural thing, and I don't think you start with something real heavy-handed."
Brunk and Kambuj said public education and awareness are key goals of the program. They hope it will alert residents to the value of the city's trees and their contribution to residents' quality of life.
Alderwoman Heather Stevenson, R-Ward 6, said that still should not infringe on property rights.
"When it comes to property owners, I think they should have the right to what is done with their homes, what is done with their trees," Stevenson said. "And if it's not in the city right-of-way, I don't think the city should have any say at all."
Alderman Dennis Roberts, D-Ward 5, said he preferred the stronger version of the program, where city officials could "be just a little more proactive in taking responsibility to establish a great list of legacy trees, and still being compliant and resourceful and thoughtful of private-property rights."
The city's legacy trees would be added to an inventory database of all the trees on city property. Officials right now are in the process of building that database.
"All the seeds are there to have great success," Roberts said.
They hope they can preserve some of the city's biggest or rarest trees in the process — like the bur oak at Long's Garage or a rare ginkgo in the 500 block of West Green Street, where city officials encouraged a developer to build an apartment complex around the tree, instead of cutting it down.
"You saved those by, in a sense, a moral pressure, a pressure that this is the right thing to do for the community," said Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2. "And I think that you can go quite far with that."