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The new tree ordinance was the result of nearly two years of study with input from the Planning, Engineering, and Public Works departments and a careful analysis of South St. Paul’s existing built environment. The City does not have a forester on staff and contracted with consultant group WSB to secure a forester who is also an ISA-certified arborist to assist with the ordinance update. The forester has brought a wealth of experience and knowledge about how other communities have handled this issue as well as the most recent research from the University of Minnesota.
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The City’s tree ordinance was last updated in 1969 as part of the City’s effort to address Dutch elm disease. Many of the policies that were enacted in 1969 are outdated and do not align with modern forestry practices. For example, the previous ordinance stated that only ash trees and maple trees could be planted in a boulevard, which does not promote tree species diversity. Diversity within tree species, genus, and family is crucial to protecting the community from a major tree loss due to an invasive insect or disease that wipes out one type of tree. Additionally, the previous tree ordinance did not include boulevard width standards which led to large shade trees being planted in small boulevards where they outgrew the space in which they were planted and damaged the sidewalk, curb, and underground utilities.
Approximately 90-95% of tree roots exist in the top 3 feet of soil, and more than half are within the top 1 foot of soil. From a tree’s perspective, small boulevards lack adequate soil volume and this requires tree roots to grow into any nearby crevice with soil and oxygen. Boulevard trees with roots that encroach a sidewalk or street are more susceptible to root cutting during infrastructure work which leads to reduced health, reduced anchoring ability, and windthrow (where a tree is uprooted and tipped over by wind).
Shade trees grow best in boulevards at least 8 feet wide where there is adequate soil volume. In boulevards that have less than 8 feet of width, there is not enough soil volume to support a healthy mature tree. Tree roots continue to grow beyond the small space and push into adjacent sidewalks, curbs, sewer and water lines. Unfortunately, very few streets in South St. Paul have boulevards that are at least 8 feet wide. Most of South St. Paul’s boulevards are 7 feet or less in width and many boulevards are only 3 feet in width.
Boulevard trees are an important part of South St. Paul’s community character and the City’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan calls for trees along all residential streets where boulevard widths allow. Based on tree root research, there are several small and medium tree species that grow well in a boulevard as narrow as 5 feet. Unfortunately, these trees need more soil volume than a 3- or 4-foot boulevard can provide over their life span. There simply is not enough room for their root systems, and there will be conflicts with infrastructure.
As trees grow and their root systems expand, the City’s curb and gutter, sidewalk, and underground utilities are damaged, and tree root systems are damaged in the process of repairing them, making the trees more susceptible to being tipped over by wind. The City is required to ensure sidewalks are accessible to all users and estimates approximately $1,000,000 in infrastructure improvements are needed due to existing tree root conflict in boulevards less than 5 feet.
Unfortunately, there are no exceptions to the 5-foot greenspace requirement for boulevard trees on residential streets. Commercial streets such as Southview Boulevard which have boulevard trees in planters, grates, or other types of special installations that control their root growth may be granted exceptions by the City Engineer on a “case by case” basis.
For streets with narrow boulevards that cannot accommodate a shade tree, the City does still want to provide residents with options for beautifying their street. As part of the ordinance update, the City expanded the list of alternative plantings that are legally allowed in City boulevards in addition to grass. The City now officially allows plantings and landscaping materials in the boulevard as long as they do not exceed 3 feet in height and do not overhang the sidewalk, street, or alley. Fences, berms, boulders, and retaining walls are not allowed in boulevards and plantings that are close to an intersection, alley, driveway, or public utility fixture need to be kept at 18 inches of height or less.
Residents are always welcome to plant trees on their private property. When planted in a front yard, private shade trees provide many (if not more) of the same benefits as boulevard trees. Trees planted in private yards instead of boulevards tend to live longer after reaching maturity and this provides greater ecosystem benefits to the community. No permit is required to plant a tree on private property, but residents should call 811 for utility locates before digging in their yard. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and University of Minnesota offer good resources on tree selection.
Long term, each neighborhood can work with the City to bring back their boulevard trees. Residential streets are reconstructed roughly once every 50 – 70 years. Before a reconstruction project begins, the City will host meetings with the neighborhood to determine how the new street will be designed. The City generally tries to ensure that all new residential streets have at least 5-foot-wide boulevards if conditions allow. The City encourages residents to get involved in the design process to ensure that boulevards are sized appropriately for the type of trees that they would like to see on their street.
If there is a pink “X” on the tree in front of your house or in your boulevard, that means it has been recognized as a publicly owned diseased or dying tree. It will be removed by the City as funding and staff time permits, often within the next year or two. Due to EAB, over 800 trees must be removed from South St. Paul’s boulevards. Tree work is handled by the Streets Department, which is a part of the Public Works Department. They are also responsible for road maintenance, plowing, street sweeping, sidewalk inspections, and other street maintenance needs. The Streets Department handles a significant amount of tree removal and stump grinding “in-house” with its own staff and equipment but there is also an annual budget to hire third party contractors to assist with tree removal and stump grinding.
The Streets Department is working hard to complete ash tree removals whenever possible but there is limited staff available, and it is very time-consuming to complete these removals. The Streets Department prioritizes the removal of boulevard trees that are at the greatest risk of falling. These high priority trees are the ones where the bark has fallen off completely and smaller twigs are falling on sidewalks and streets.
The City has a budget for tree work and that budget is currently dedicated to the removal of dead and dying trees in parks and boulevards. In September 2017, the City completed a tree inventory of its parks and boulevards and determined that it owned 1,724 ash trees which are now all either dead or dying due to emerald ash borer. These publicly owned ash trees are a total loss and are in the process of being removed. The removal effort was originally on schedule to be completed sometime in 2026 or 2027 but ash trees are dying very rapidly and becoming hazardous so the City is exploring what the cost would be to hire additional 3rd party contractors to speed up the work.
The City has successfully obtained two grants from the DNR to help with the removal and replacement of some trees that were killed by emerald ash borer. Kaposia Landing, Kaposia Park, Lorraine Park, Northview, and parts of the 7th Avenue boulevard have received new trees through the DNR grant program. Currently, City replanting projects are completely reliant upon grant dollars since the budget for tree work is entirely dedicated to tree removal.
When a residential street is reconstructed, part of the project budget goes towards planting new trees in the boulevard. Street reconstruction projects are funded through a combination of general fund dollars and assessments against benefitting properties. The City has a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) which lays out a roadmap for which streets need to be reconstructed in upcoming years.
If your boulevard is at least 5 feet wide, you do not need to wait for the City to plant a boulevard tree. You can download the “Boulevard Tree Work Permit” application and apply for FREE permit to plant your own tree in the boulevard. The City must approve your tree variety and tree location to make sure that your new tree will adhere to the ordinance and will not conflict with infrastructure. The City will not approve any boulevard tree work permits for boulevards that are less than 5 feet in width. Residents can download the permit application at here. Please read thoroughly before submitting.
For more information, visit our trees section or call 651-554-3225.