Residents of Duluth’s East Fourth Street took to their sidewalks Sunday afternoon to protest a planned street improvement project that could cost the neighborhood practically all of its boulevard trees.

Ronald Klein has lived on the street for 33 years with his wife, Constance, and expressed frustration that St. Louis County officials seem to be paying so little heed to property owners’ concerns.

“They have no respect for the people who are going to get stuck paying the bill for this project,” he said. “The worst part is that there is no accountability.”

McKinnon Jones, 18, sat protectively at the base of a maple tree in front of the Fourth Street house she has called home for the past eight years.   

“These trees are worth fighting for,” she said. “They make our neighborhood what it is. That’s one of the things I love about living here, our street is like a tunnel through the trees.”

City Councilor Joel Sipress, who represents Duluth’s 2nd District, lives on Fourth Street and stands to lose several trees in front of his home, as well. He said he relates to his neighbors’ sense of impending grief.

“As residents of Fourth Street ourselves, we love the trees. And the possibility of losing them is painful and difficult,” he said.

Yet Sipress acknowledged the street and the utilities that lie below it require work. He noted that there have been two water outages on his block within the past months.

“I think that’s an indication of the age and the condition of the water mains under Fourth Street,” he said.

When asked to comment on Sunday’s “Stand by your tree” demonstration, Sipress said: “I completely understand it, and I think it’s good for people to show how much they value the trees on Fourth Street. It’s something that keeps attention on that issue, and it helps focus attention on the need to look for reasonable alternatives, recognizing that in the end the utility work has to get done.”

St. Louis County engineer Steve Krasaway said the county recently hired an “impartial”’ arborist from the Twin Cities to assess the situation along Fourth Street.

Sipress said he was encouraged to learn that the county had brought in an arborist to determine if more trees could be spared.

“The water mains have to be replaced, and as a councilor I have been pushing,” he said. “I have been asking the county to look at all reasonable options that might be available to save trees while at the same time getting the work done that absolutely has to get done. And I’ll keep asking those questions, but in the end we have to replace the water mains.”

Krasaway said the arborist’s findings weren’t favorable for the trees

“He came up with the same conclusion that we made and that the city forester had come to, that every single boulevard tree along that stretch has to go,’’ Krasaway said. “Nobody wants to take these trees. But to do the project, he confirmed they are going to have to go.”

Sipress said he has not yet seen the arborist’s report on the trees, but he expects to be able to review those findings later this week.

Many of the imperiled trees are 70 years old and older and are nearing the end of their expected life on an urban boulevard, Krasaway said.

Rebuilding the street, even at the same width, will require contractors to dig down 4 feet, and 1 foot back from the curb, Krasaway said. The silver maples are so big that just digging straight down in the street “will cut right into the trees, let alone the roots,” he said “There’s no way to do anything without taking the trees.”

The 2-mile reconstruction project is estimated to cost about $6 million, with another $3 million in city utility replacement. Many of the water lines are more than 100 years old and too small, officials say, and the sewer lines are nearly as old and leaky.

Krasaway said the project is expected to start in the spring of 2016, although some utility work between 12th and 14th avenues east could begin late in 2015.

He said the county will coordinate relating efforts with the city forester and that some maples, elms and other species probably will be planted along the newly reconstructed street. The county has pledged to plant two trees for every tree removed from the boulevard to make way for construction.

But Ann Redelfs, another Fourth Street resident, said the character of the neighborhood will be completely altered with young saplings left to take the place of mature shade trees.

“When I see what they did to Glenwood, it makes me want to cry,” she said, referring to the spindly replacements planted in place of the large trees that were removed for a recent road project Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood.

Redelfs contends the road and water improvements could be accomplished without removing all the mature boulevard trees and suggested that using directional drilling to replace water mains could prove the answer.

“We have people here who care about trees and the environment,” she said. “Duluth is a community with intelligent decision-makers who can still make this happen right.”

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