Council amends inoculation plan to include fewer elms

Scott Gordon

Local tree activists and city government officials agree that elms increase Evanston’s property values and should be preserved. But after nine months of debating and voting, they haven’t agreed how best to protect the trees from the spread of Dutch elm disease.

The city scaled back a plan to inoculate Evanston’s 3,400 elm trees against the disease, choosing only to treat about 1,150 elms with a diameter of 30 inches or more.

Evanston loses 4 percent of its elms every year to Dutch elm disease, according to city documents.

Evanston City Council voted June 13 to drop a previous plan to pay half the cost of the treatments by adding an $24.33 charge to each city water bill over the next three years. The city has already begun inoculating but has not yet charged residents.

Evanston Mayor Lorraine H. Morton refused to support that plan — which the council passed May 23 as a city ordinance — because it would have punished customers who didn’t pay for inoculations with water shutoffs and fines as high as $750 per day. Morton also didn’t like that the ordinance would have made the plan permanent, or at least didn’t specify when the program and its costs would end. She said the aldermen “did not know the ordinance said what it said” when they passed it.

The reversal means the city must change its $756,984 contract with Arbor Green, the Glenview-based company that inoculates the trees. City Manager Julia Carroll said the city is already talking with Arbor Green and will likely avoid a lawsuit over the contract.

Tree inoculation began in Evanston as a volunteer effort paid for by residents and citizen groups. Virginia Mann co-founded the group To Rescue Evanston’s Elms (TREE) in 2002 because elms were dying despite the city’s efforts to save them by “sanitizing” them, or cutting out infected sections.

But inoculating the trees on a volunteer basis wasn’t enough. “Last year it became very clear that doing it on a one-off basis wasn’t going to solve the problem” as trees started dying at a greater rate,” Mann said. “Even if you get the neighbors to do it, neighbors change … it really needed to be a comprehensive citywide program.”

The disease originates with beetles that feed on the bark of elm trees and infect them with a deadly fungus that spreads throughout its trunk, roots and branches. Trees can pass the disease to each other through their roots, so inoculating just one or a few on a block is not always enough.

“The elm trees tend to be in clusters, so it’s not unusual to lose a whole group of trees,” Mann said.

The city first decided to pay for inoculations in September, when the council voted unanimously to pay $30,000 to immediately inoculate 100 elm trees. Since then, the council has inched toward establishing a wider program, and Mann is getting frustrated.

“We have talked about it and talked about it and talked about it and talked about it and talked about it and it’s really time to stop,” she said this week.

Mann said TREE will not pay for inoculations again but will keep asking the city to pay to inoculate all its elms.

“We are asking that they use these funds more efficiently,” she said.

Evanston still sanitizes trees, but inoculation is slightly more effective, City Manager Julia Carroll said. Sanitizing saves trees 96 percent of the time and inoculation is 98 percent effective. “The real issue in my mind is the 2-percent difference and how much is that worth,” she said.

Mann said paying for sanitization is inefficient, but Carroll said the cost of sanitizing mostly comprises labor and equipment costs the city would be paying anyway.

Reach Scott Gordon at [email protected].