A proposed street improvement project has touched off a revolution to save trees in Eastborough, which calls itself "The City of Trees."
City officials are considering spending about $880,000 to rebuild streets and install curbs and gutters in what is known as "West Eastborough," or "Old Eastborough," a small quadrangle of homes north and west of the intersection of Douglas and Woodlawn.
Most of the residents in the affected area oppose the project, which they say would kill dozens of trees and do long-term damage to the woodsy, tree-canopied atmosphere they now enjoy.
Several neighbors have decorated trees in their yards with green ribbons and signs saying "Save the Trees."
"If we, the majority, don't want it, why won't they listen to us?" said Susan Vickers, who recently hosted a meeting at her home to organize opposition. "I don't know they (city officials) are the people who should be telling us what to do and how to beautify our neighborhood."
The Eastborough City Council — which meets once a month — is expected to consider whether to go forward with the project at its Dec. 28 meeting.
Longtime residents say that sometime around the 1950s, curbs and gutters were installed in most of Eastborough, but the handful of west-siders in this city of 324 homes opted not to participate.
Now, the city wants to tear out the existing streets, lay a firm roadbed and resurface with gutters to prevent water from infiltrating under the pavement.
Mayor Thom Rosenberg, and John Johnson, the city council member who's been the lead on the project, said the city will do everything it can to protect as many trees as possible.
But they say they have to fix the streets, which are rough, cracked and cratered with potholes — a problem for motorists even at the 20-mph speed limit the city is famous for zealously enforcing.
Rosenberg said historically low interest rates have given Eastborough a rare opportunity to affordably borrow money to fix the problem once and for all.
If the city's plan goes through, West Eastborough residents would pay 5 percent of the cost, while the remaining 95 percent would be spread in an assessment over the rest of the city.
The total cost of principal and interest on the bonded debt was not available.
Value of trees
But residents in the affected area question both the cost and the benefit of the project.
They propose that the city take a minimalist — and more tree-friendly — approach of overlaying the current streets with about a 6-inch layer of asphalt.
They say the trees are the character of the neighborhood, a significant factor both in their enjoyment of living there and their property values, which range from about $250,000 to $750,000.
"Typically there's a canopy of trees ... making the area very pretty as you drive through or walk through," said resident Michael Papadakis. "It makes the neighborhood look like a park. It makes the whole thing very appealing."
"The devastating part is a lot of these trees are quite old," added his wife, Giao Vu. "A lot of them have been here since the 1920s."
The neighbors cite a study by Texas A&M University that found mature tree cover contributes about 13 to 19 percent to property values.
Value of good streets
Rosenberg said he understands that trees are important, but so are streets.
"When you have good streets in good repair, values go up, not down," he said.
The city officials don't think much of the neighbors' idea for an overlay, which they say would crack just like the existing pavement and need to be redone in a year or two.
"Our engineer said that would be a waste of money," Johnson said. "The base under that, there is no base."
Originally, the area was engineered to drain through street-side ditches and small culverts, many of which have filled in over the decades.
"Water got down under the road and it's just a mess," Johnson said. With curbs, runoff water would run down the sides of the street instead of undermining it, he said.
The neighbors reply that the streets are only in poor shape now because they weren't maintained through a period of abnormally heavy traffic.
The streets used to get several trash trucks through every week, but with franchising, that's now down to one, they said.
In addition, one house was torn down and rebuilt because of termite damage and some other neighbors had some major renovations done on their property. Now that those projects are finished, there will be no need in the foreseeable future to have heavy equipment on the streets, they said.
Arborists weigh in
Arborists are of divided, and evolving, opinion on how the road project would affect the neighborhood's trees.
Resident Joe Stevens hired a state-certified arborist to estimate the effect on pin oak trees on and around his property.
The arborist, John Means of Means Tree Service, said he harbored a series of concerns, including:
* long-term decay of existing root systems
* damage or loss of roots
* heavy equipment compacting the soil
* damage to trunks of trees
* introduction of aggregates that could change the acidity of the soil and cause "die back"
"Due to the age of the trees it is my recommendation that pruning for compensation of construction is not practical in this situation and that these trees will show signs of decline in both the long and short term," he concluded.
The city also hired an arborist, Tim McDonnell of Kansas State University's Kansas Forest Service.
He said his initial impression was grim — the loss of as much as 50 to 90 percent of trees along the roadside.
But he said he's paring that estimate down in his final report, partly because of changes to the plan and partly because of research he's done since his preliminary estimate.
He said he has now done test trenching at three locations and found little root development toward the street.
"It was surprising, in fact, that we didn't have any large-diameter roots even though we were within 10 feet of the tree," he said.
He said the street was laid on native soil that has compacted over the years, leaving little oxygen for root development. He said the trees appeared to have compensated for that by spreading their roots farther onto the lawn side of properties.
He said he agrees with Means that the gravel used in the road bed could be a concern, depending on the types of materials used.
McDonnell also said he predicated his original tree mortality estimate on an earlier option that would have widened the streets to 29 feet. He said the damage would be much less under more current plans, which call for 21- to 24-foot-wide streets.
Technically, the city streets are supposed to be 24 feet across now, but in some areas, they are as narrow as 19 or 20 feet.
McDonnell said he will present a formal report on his findings at the Dec. 28 meeting.
The meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, 1 E. Douglas, Eastborough.