This story comes to you from Sahan Journal. MPR News is a partner with Sahan Journal and will be sharing stories between SahanJournal.com and MPRNews.org.
A new federal grant will provide Minneapolis with $8 million to pay for ash tree removal on private properties in disadvantaged neighborhoods, a significant relief effort after millions of dollars in removal costs were assessed against homeowners’ property taxes.
The U.S. Forest Service grant comes from funding in the Inflation Reduction Act. The city applied for the grant in coordination with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which condemns ash trees on private property in response to the infestation of the invasive emerald ash borer beetle.
The Minneapolis Park Board has condemned more than 18,000 ash trees since 2013. Homeowners with condemned trees either paid directly for their removal, or the city paid and assessed the cost—or added the cost as a fee—onto the homeowner’s property taxes.
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Property tax assessments on tree removals total more than $7.3 million, according to the Park Board.
Neighborhoods targeted by the new federal funding, such as north Minneapolis, disproportionately paid for previous tree removal via property tax assessments, leading to increased monthly costs, Park Board data show.
“We’re really grateful to have these resources,” said Kelly Muellman, environmental manager with the Minneapolis Health Department.
But those resources can’t be used retroactively, meaning there’s no relief in sight for thousands of homeowners who are currently paying off tree removals that were ordered by the city.
Minneapolis’ ash tree removal policy is aimed at addressing the green beetle that is killing ash trees across the Midwest.
Several Minneapolis homeowners told Park Board officials at an October board meeting that they’re frustrated by the policy, that the costs are impacting family budgets, and that homeowners who are people of color, senior, and low-income were particularly affected.
Perhaps no one is more familiar with tree condemnations than Melissa Newman, a resident of the north side’s McKinley neighborhood. Seven trees on her property have been condemned due to Dutch elm disease or emerald ash borer since she bought her house 17 years ago.
The city’s forced removal of affected trees and subsequent property tax assessments are hardships, said Newman, adding that her monthly costs have increased between $150 to $200 as a result.
“I inherited the tree trying to create the American dream of homeownership,” Newman told Sahan Journal.
The funding applies to U.S. Census tracts considered to be environmental justice areas by the federal government, which includes almost the entire North Side, parts of northeast Minneapolis, and a large swath of south Minneapolis, including the Phillips and Cedar-Riverside neighborhoods.
The city originally applied for a $29 million grant from the U.S. Forest Service. The $8 million it received will help hundreds of households, but could go fast. The city and Park Board are also pursuing a $500,000 grant from the state for the same purposes.
It’s unclear how far that money will stretch, or how many ash trees remain on private property citywide. Minneapolis officials say there are at least 12,000 trees remaining on private property in the environmental justice areas targeted by the grant, but also acknowledge that the Park Board doesn’t have good estimates on the true number.
The average tree removal in Minneapolis costs around $1,500. The grant also covers stump grinding, which isn’t included in the current average cost of tree removal, and replacing trees.
Minneapolis city tree program manager Sydney Schaaf said the city is still waiting for detailed instructions on how the grant can be used, but hope it will ease the burden to homeowners and help build back lost canopy.
A flawed process
Homeowners in the areas targeted by the grant are more likely than homeowners in wealthier neighborhoods to pay for mandated tree removals via property tax assessment. Homeowners in more affluent neighborhoods typically paid out of pocket to hire a contractor of their choice to remove a tree, according to Park Board data.
North side residents disproportionately paid for tree removal via property tax assessments, Park Board data show. Around $2.8 million have been assessed in north Minneapolis in the last decade.
North Minneapolis homeowners experienced a high rate of tree condemnation, too. When Minneapolis ash tree condemnations peaked in 2021, with 6,095 trees marked for removal citywide, roughly 42 percent of condemnations happened in North Side neighborhoods, according to Park Board data.
More than half of the roughly 3,000 households citywide who paid for tree removal via property tax assessments in 2021 were in north Minneapolis.
Approximately 16 percent of the 2,164 tree condemnations issued from the start of 2023 through October were in North Side neighborhoods, according to Park Board data.
In 2021, the Park Board condemned five trees on Newman’s property in north Minneapolis. Her yard is fenced in, but one day there were green marks on her trees and a hanger on her doorknob telling her the ash trees had to go. She had 60 days to either cut the trees down on her own, or allow the Park Board to handle it by sending over the lowest bidding contractor.
Two were small enough for a neighbor to remove, but three were removed by the city and assessed against her property taxes. One of those assessed trees straddled the property line, and Newman split the $800 charge with a neighbor.
But two other trees were deemed “special” by the Park Board (for reasons Newman said were never satisfactorily explained to her), and the removal involved a crane, driving the combined removal cost to $2,700.
All told, after an $80 flat fee the Park Board imposes on all assessed trees and a 3 percent interest charge on the assessment, removing the two trees cost about $3,100. Newman’s yard used to be full of trees, and her dog would lie in the shade. But now, the grass dies easily in the summer heat, and Newman has to hack away at the tree stumps left behind.
“It’s completely open,” she said of her property.
The Park Board does not target any particular area of the city for ash tree condemnation, said Philip Potyondy, sustainable forestry coordinator, with the Park Board. It’s possible that ash trees are more common in some parts of the city, he said, adding that ash borer also tends to spread exponentially, and may have accelerated in the North Side in 2021 and 2022.
“This has impacted people in every part of Minneapolis,” said Potyondy.
Emerald ash borer is a persistent beetle, and it will infest and kill ash trees in time. But the infestation can be prevented with insecticide treatments implanted into a tree like an intravenous tube.
Potyondy said the city’s 12 staff tree inspectors only condemn ash trees that show signs of infestation. Those signs include woodpecker damage and thinning canopy at the top of the trees. They don’t confirm the presence of disease through testing, but because the beetle is so pervasive, any ash tree in the region that has not been treated will essentially become infested at some point, Potyondy said.
Newman said she would have been happy to spend around $200 every couple of years to treat her trees and prevent emerald ash borer infestation. The branches seemed fine and new leaves blossomed each spring.
But the Park Board doesn’t inform people that treating trees is an option. In 2010, the Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution advising against using insecticides to treat emerald ash borer, Park Board forestry director Ralph Sievert told the board.
“We have been omitting that information when we’re communicating with constituents,” Park Board Commissioner Billy Menz said of the treatment option.
The Park Board altered the assessment process after community pushback led by the Harrison Neighborhood Association and the nonprofit, Hope Community.
Mitchel Hansen, outreach director with the North Side’s Harrison Neighborhood Association, is leading the charge against private ash tree condemnation. He became interested in the issue after hearing from several neighbors about costly assessments, and feels that the process is flawed and contradicts Park Board equity goals.
“I see this as being unfair. I see this as something we can easily solve,” Hansen said.
Schaaf and Muellman, the city health department employees, said the Harrison Neighborhood Association’s advocacy work inspired the city to apply for the federal grant.
Last May, the Park Board temporarily halted the assessment process to make changes.
The Park Board now requires tree removal companies to first examine the trees in order to get more competitive bids for removals that will be assessed against a homeowner’s property taxes, Potyondy said. Previously, only special trees with difficult removal circumstances would get in-person inspections from companies bidding to remove them.
The city also now offers all homeowners the choice of repaying the tree removal debt on their property taxes over five, 10, or 20 years, reducing the monthly cost with longer payment periods. Previously, the assessment was automatically set for a five-year period.
There is now also an exemption for seniors and veterans who can demonstrate economic hardship to defer the payments until the property is sold.
The city made 885 assessments worth about $2 million before pausing its assessment process earlier this year. When the pause ended in October, the city began collecting payments from those homeowners, who are ineligible for the new federal funding.
Most condemned ash trees are not assessed against property taxes, according to Potyondy, and the majority of removals are paid by homeowners out of pocket.
“This is an absolute priority of mine,” Bangoura said.
‘The ship has sailed for me’
Schaaf, Minneapolis’ tree program coordinator, said she understands homeowners’ frustrations about the assessment process and the fact that the grant money can’t help retroactively.
“It’s hard because a lot of these people that are having to have a tree removed already live in areas that have some of the lowest tree canopy in the city. A lot of them really love trees, and they really don’t want to have to remove their tree,” Schaaf said.
Amoke Kubat didn’t want to get rid of her ash tree. She bought her home in the north side’s Cleveland neighborhood in January 2021. While she was unpacking, she noticed a man in her backyard eyeing her large ash tree. He told her it was infested and tagged it for removal. Suddenly, Kubat had to figure out how to remove it and pay the bill.
The Park Board gave her a list of contractors to call. She got estimates, some as high as $10,000. The tree didn’t come down until August 2021, and in the meantime, an ash tree in her front yard was condemned as well. The backyard tree was huge, Kubat said, measuring 32 inches in diameter, according to Park Board records.
Kubat was assessed more than $6,000 to remove both trees; the process was stressful.
Her yard isn’t the same anymore. There’s nowhere for the squirrels to go and the birds seem confused, she said. Following the policy for all condemned and assessed trees, her contractor was paid only to cut down the trees, leaving large stumps in her yard that sprout small trees, which will be expensive to remove.
“We loved the tree,” Kubat said.
Kubat thinks the presence of ash trees should be noted during the inspection process of buying a home. She spoke with neighbors on the north side and realized the issue was affecting many others. She’s glad there’s money to help now, but believes the process of identifying and removing affected trees is flawed.
“The bottom line is the ship has sailed for me. It’s on my bill,” Kubat said.
‘A slap in the face’
One day early this past summer, a crew showed up to Willis White’s house in the Jordan neighborhood to cut down a massive ash tree in his backyard. White, 54, was confused, and said he didn’t know the tree would be removed that day.
A data request on White’s removal shows that letters about the tree were sent to the house starting in January 2022. White said he and his wife bought the home with their daughter originally, and she officially transferred the property to them last year. The letters to the house were addressed to White’s daughter.
They’d received a letter about the tree and had been shopping around for a contractor, White said, but hadn’t hired anyone yet. He wishes someone from the Park Board would have knocked on the door or called to make sure they knew someone was coming to cut the tree for a hefty fee. According to a records request, White’s tree was determined to be special, and the city obtained three removal bids ranging from $10,000 to $7,200.
“It’s really difficult,” White said of the removal cost and the circumstances.
According to White: The removal took a toll on the yard. The contractor had to take down a chain link fence to bring in equipment, and didn’t properly repair it. Workers had to shut off power to his house, and lowered an outdoor power cord to the ground, which was left when they finished and had to be rehung by White and his son. The remaining stump is large, and White hasn’t looked into how much it will cost to remove.
The Park Board cut some 40,000 ash trees in public parks and on streets, but never ground the stump on the boulevard in front of White’s house. The stump sprouted dozens of tiny trees this year, creating an overgrown mess.
White’s tree is the seventh most expensive removal handled by the city since 2013, according to Park Board data. His cost — measured by the diameter of the tree’s trunk — was $226 “per trunk inch,” much higher than the median price of $69 per trunk inch in 2022.
Removal prices vary widely. White’s 30-inch diameter tree was assessed at $6,800. Kubat’s 32-inch tree cost $3,000; the smaller, 20-inch tree also condemned in her yard went for the same $3,000 price.
Although Park Board data says White’s tree was assessed for $6,800, the bill for his removal was more than $7,500 after fees and interest, according to a records request and a letter sent to White’s home.
“There’s no rhyme or reason why they price what they do,” said Newman, the McKinley resident who was assessed more than $3,100 for removals.
Newman said it’s not that she’s unwilling to pay, but that there were no alternatives to cutting the offered and no answers given about why her trees were determined to need special removal techniques throughout the process, despite her regularly reaching out to Park Board staff. She doesn’t want to see her neighbors get price gouged, and she’s mad that no relief is coming to people who are currently paying off assessments.
“It’s such a slap in the face,” Newman said.
Learn more about Sahan Journal’s data analysis for this story.
Much of the time, the cost is passed on to homeowners. But the city of Minneapolis has received $8 million in federal money that will help offset the cost for some. Not everyone is happy about this though. Andrew Hazzard has been covering this story. He's an environmental reporter for Sahan Journal. Welcome back to the show, Andrew. How are you been? How have you been?
ANDREW HAZZARD: I've been well. Thank you so much for having me.
INTERVIEWER: Good, thanks for being here. So folks may or may not be familiar with the situation revolving around the emerald ash borer, this insect that's been around now for a number of years in the infestation of ash trees has been pretty severe in the Twin Cities metro area. Where do we stand right now with this fight?
ANDREW HAZZARD: That's a good question. So the situation with the emerald ash borer in the broader Metropolitan area is basically that cities across the metro are doing their best to either cut or treat almost every ash tree that's in the public right of way in the area. So that means if it's in a public park, it probably got cut down. If it's on your sidewalk street, it's probably been cut down by the city.
And if it's in a private property, many cities are either condemning these ash trees, which means that they're basically forcing the homeowners to remove those ash trees. Or they're asking homeowners to get a treatment for the ash tree, which is basically like plugging an IV into your tree every couple of years with an insecticide to prevent the green beetle from taking root and killing the tree ultimately.
So in terms of where we're at numbers wise with this, that is sort of unknown there are some rough estimates here. As you mentioned, Saint Paul has cut down about 30,000 trees. Minneapolis cut down about 40,000 trees in the public right of way. And they have since condemned, as you said, about 18,000 trees on private property.
But in terms of getting a full account of all this ash trees, they really don't have one because in Minnesota we are in a rich ash tree environment here. And the state DNR estimates that there were, at the beginning of all this, a billion ash trees across the state.
INTERVIEWER: Wow. So it feels though, just given the numbers you've given us just in the metro area, there can't be that many trees left to infect, at least in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
ANDREW HAZZARD: Maybe, it seems like that. But there are estimates roughly that there could be upwards of 20,000 trees left in Minneapolis that have not been condemned at this point. And that doesn't necessarily mean that they're not infected yet, but it means that no one has gone around to say this is probably infected and condemned it. But the rough estimates out there are just that, they're rough.
INTERVIEWER: Help me out here. I'm old enough to remember when the elm trees fell to Dutch elm disease. Were ash trees planted in their stead?
ANDREW HAZZARD: Oftentimes yes. So this has been a learning process for the arborist community. And as you mentioned, in the 70s and 80s, there was a mass infestation of elm trees. Dutch elm disease is what was causing this. And they cut down these elm trees throughout the metro. Tons, and tons, and tons of trees were cut down.
And when they replaced those trees, they would often do it block by block, and say, on this block, we're going to do maples. On this block, we're going to do ash. And on many of those blocks that they replanted them all with ash trees, we've seen those same blocks get totally decimated and clear cut basically in response to this infectious disease.
And so when you talk to the arborist community today, when they're replanting or when they're planting trees on public property, they're trying their best to mix up the species. So that in theory if another invasive species or another disease comes along that the impact won't be quite as drastic. But as you mentioned, yes, there are several blocks that got their elm trees cut down. 30 years later, their ash trees are getting cut down. And hopefully, this doesn't happen with the maple trees.
INTERVIEWER: Well it's just so sad to see. So as I mentioned in my intro, the cost to take these trees down tends to fall to the property owners, which is a lot of money, my gosh. And I'm sure it depends on how big the tree is.
ANDREW HAZZARD: Yeah, it's a ton of money. So the average price of a condemned ash tree removal in the city of Minneapolis is around $1,500, but that can vary widely. I talked to several people who are paying much more than that for this story. And you can find in the data tree condemnations that were upwards of eight, $7,000, huge expenses.
And as you said, of course, the size of the tree matters a lot. The bigger the tree, the more equipment, the more manpower is needed to take this tree down. What happens if the tree is near a power line? What happens if you have to go around a fence? All these other little things that can factor in and build up to a massive cost being passed along to these homeowners.
And when they do these condemned trees, at least in the city of Minneapolis, they have a contractor come out. And they cut down this tree, but they don't remove the stump. And stump grinding itself, that sounds extremely boring, I realize, stump grinding. But stump grinding is super, super expensive and cumbersome. So this is a lot of money that we're talking about that people have to take.
INTERVIEWER: So this new federal money is a big deal. So who's eligible to get it?
ANDREW HAZZARD: That's right. So this money is coming out of the Inflation Reduction Act through the US Forestry Service, the city of Minneapolis got $8 million for this grant to help people. And this grant is specifically to help ash tree removals in federal environmental justice areas. That means neighborhoods that have a history of pollution, or industrial activity neighborhoods that have a significant population of residents of color, neighborhoods that have lower incomes in those areas.
So in Minneapolis, that map sort of looks out is that the vast majority of North Minneapolis is on that, there are parts of Northeast that are on that. sections of South Minneapolis kind of in the 35 Hiawatha area are part of that. So all told it's roughly about 35% to 40% geographically of the city of Minneapolis.
INTERVIEWER: Wow, so have you heard from homeowners who are upset about this program?
ANDREW HAZZARD: Yes, and it's not necessarily that they are upset about this program. But they are feeling like, I already have this on my bill. So the way that this condemnation has worked so far, someone shows up they document that you've got an ash tree. And they say, oh, we're seeing signs that this disease that might look like easy woodpecker damage, that might look like thinning canopy. And they are going to condemn the tree.
People might see a big, green X on the tree. And they leave a little door hanger that says, you've got 60 days to either hire a contractor to do this on your own. Or if you cannot do that, we will send somebody out a private company that bids on these tree removals to do it for you. And we will assess that onto your property taxes. And this was traditionally done with just a five year assessment blanket, five year assessment for everybody. That since changed with more options for 10 and 20 years.
But the point is, if you have an expensive tree removal, or if you've got more than one ash tree, and all of a sudden you've got this $6,000, $7,000 assessment on your bill that's being paid off over five years, people are basically adding $100 to $300 more on their monthly cost just to take care of this problem that they might not even have been aware of. And that basically taking care of that is committing to this public good, which is trying to prevent these trees from dying, and collapsing, and potentially hurting somebody, or damaging property, and that sort of thing.
So it's not that they're mad that this new federal money is available. They're glad that their neighbors and whatnot might be able to benefit from this program. But they're saying, well, what about us? And what the city has been told by the federal government is that they can't use this retroactively.
And so there is an effort ongoing right now from the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board where they're trying to seek out philanthropic partners potentially to help people who are already paying this off. But they don't really have a good solution for people who are stuck with this on their bills currently.
INTERVIEWER: OK, I got it. It's a little complicated, but I understand. So some of these homeowners, are they going to be replanting new trees? Or is that left up to the city of Minneapolis?
ANDREW HAZZARD: So the federal grant pays for replanting. And the city has said that for these new homes and these new tree removals that come under this federal grant that they are going to be planting one to two trees to replace those trees. Now for the 18,000 or so people who have already been had trees condemned on their property or cut down, there was no free tree planting for them or anything like that.
And planting a tree, much like removing a tree, can be more expensive than you think. You might have to call before you dig number, which is everyone's greatest fear. And it's not that simple, unfortunately. And so there will be replanting with this new one. But in terms of replacing those 18,000 trees on private property that have already been lost, there's no real tally of how much people are replanting.
And as you mentioned, people might be apprehensive about replanting, thinking, am I just planting a 20 year bomb to get a new bill on my house, if some new infectious disease or invasive species comes through? I talked to a woman for this story who has had seven trees on her property condemned over the past 20 years, due to Dutch Elm and emerald ash borer disease.
ANDREW HAZZARD: Why would that woman want to plant more trees on her property, which is a really sad thing to say, because trees are very good for us, and for the air, and for the storm water runoff, and for providing cooling benefits, and just being nice things. So it's unfortunate that many people are in this really negative bind here.
INTERVIEWER: Interesting story. I really appreciate the backstory to this and the context nicely done. Thank you, Andrew.
ANDREW HAZZARD: Thank you very much for having me.
INTERVIEWER: Andrew Hazzard is the environmental reporter for Sahan Journal. Sahan is a nonprofit digital publication dedicated to reporting for immigrants and communities of color in Minnesota. You can read Andrew's reporting at sahanjournal.com.
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