Commissioner’s questions halt county’s plan to remove trees on private land

At stake was about $47,000, just less than the annual median household income in Sedgwick County.

County Manager William Buchanan had signed off on spending $46,685 to clear out trees on private property along Central Avenue from the entrance of housing development St. Andrew’s Place east to 143rd Street. Work was to start next week.

But questioning by County Commissioner Richard Ranzau put the kibosh on the project, and the Minneha Township now will have to pay the tab if it wants the trees gone.

“We got out in front of ourselves without doing much critical thinking, and I take full responsibility for that,” Buchanan said.

Ranzau peppered Buchanan and other county leaders with questions this week about why the county would pay to remove trees from a 10-foot strip of a 75-foot-wide shelter belt along Central. The trees, he contended, were on private property and should be the responsibility of the homeowners association. The area falls outside of city limits but is inside of the Minneha Township, which includes about 5,000 residences.

A letter from the Sedgwick County Fire District Gary Curmode said the trees, many of them fallen from an April 2012 tornado, posed a fire hazard. Curmode said such in an Aug. 10, 2012, letter to Ed Flentje, a professor of public administration at Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs and a former interim manager for the city of Wichita, on behalf of homeowners associations in the area. Flentje lives in the Crestview Improvement District and is a member of The Commons at Southcrest Homeowners Association. Flentje was at a meeting where Curmode and other county officials spoke, and Curmode was asked to take a look at the shelter belt.

“It does have thick trees and vegetation that could pose a safety and fire hazard due to the extremely dry conditions to the houses in the Crestview Addition,” Curmode said in the letter. “The shelter belt does (pose) a real potential problem.”

As manager, Buchanan can OK projects less than $50,000 without commission approval, although he does notify the board. In this case, a request for proposals was sent out, but Buchanan had not signed a contract to remove the trees.

Ranzau said he thought that the Minneha Township and homeowners associations wanted help to clear trees not so much for fire safety but to be able to to build a wall between the houses along that stretch of Central Avenue and the street.

“That’s being used as an excuse for the county to do it,” Ranzau said of concerns about fire safety. “Beyond that, whether you’re doing it for fire hazard or true storm removal, this is private property, and we don’t normally do that.”

During a staff meeting Tuesday, Ranzau said it made no sense that the county would pay for 10 feet of tree removal when the shelter belt was 75 feet wide. The project Buchanan had approved would have removed the 10 feet of trees closest to the street, and if the concern was fire safety, Ranzau asked, wouldn’t the county focus on the trees closest to the houses?

“When I first found about this, I couldn’t figure out why they were doing the 10 feet,” Ranzau said. “Let’s not use storm damage and potential fire hazard as an excuse to use taxpayer money to help them build their concrete wall. It’s sure not alleviating any fire hazard.”

Don Gragg, trustee of the Minneha Township, said a wall has been planned for that area, in part to abate noise. But he stood by the fire concerns Wednesday.

He said a similar poured concrete wall prevented the spread of fire when a truck crashed in a nearby subdivision.

Gragg said Wednesday that the township may pay to take out the trees the county had planned to remove. He said the homeowners associations in the area were going to clear out the rest of the trees.

“We’ll just have to fall back and reassess where we are,” Gragg said after Commissioner Dave Unruh, who represents the area, informed him the county would not be paying for the project.

Unruh said he could understand why the township approached the county and said he at first was supportive of the manager’s decision to sign off on the project.

“I was aware of it, but I haven’t been involved in the details,” Unruh said. “When I initially heard about it, I was wanting to be supportive of my township trustee. We’ve tried to be good partners with townships when they have projects, but this seems a little bit not ordinary.”

Buchanan had a change of heart, too.

“Why are we spending money on a fire hazard that’s only going to be one-seventh corrected with no guarantee that the other six-seventh will be corrected?” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a very smart investment.”

Asked if the project would have continued had it not been for Ranzau’s questioning, Buchanan said: “I can’t speculate. I don’t know. The lesson is we must be much better at thinking critically . . . when we’re asked to participate with partners.”

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