Sylvania rejects funds to clear ash trees

Sylvania City Council rejected a federal grant to clean up hundreds of dead or dying ash trees in Harroun Park because the grant came with conditions on how the park would be managed in the future.
Sylvania City Council rejected a federal grant to clean up hundreds of dead or dying ash trees in Harroun Park because the grant came with conditions on how the park would be managed in the future.

With hundreds of ash trees in Sylvania's Harroun Park dead or dying from the emerald ash borer's ravages, the city faces a six-figure cleanup bill - but one for which it has turned down a possible federal grant.

City council decided last week that it wasn't interested in a potential $190,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service to help pay for clearing dead ash trees and restoring the Harroun forest with native species, because the grant came with conditions about how the park is managed in the future.

"This property is in the middle of our city," said Michael Brown, who joined a 4-2 majority opposing the grant following both committee-of-the-whole discussion and later final action by council. The park is very valuable to the city, he said, "and we really don't want to bring a third party in to help manage that property."

But right after the committee vote, council members Doug Haynam and Mark Luetke, who voted on opposite sides, urged the city administration to develop a budget and action plan for removing the dead ashes. "The citizens expect that," Mr. Luetke said.

Pat O'Brien, the city's superintendent of parks and forestry, said the 1,000 to 1,500 green ash trees in Harroun Park, all devastated by the invasive emerald ash borer beetle, accounted for about 70 percent of the forest there. The beetle spread into northwest Ohio after being introduced to Michigan early last decade, probably having escaped from wooden packing material on freight imported from Asia.

"We don't have to do anything at all. We could let the trees fall, let the debris build up on the forest floor," Mr. O'Brien told council. "But with the trail system we have, there is a presumption by the person using the park that they're going to exit the park safely."

Besides the risk of a park visitor being struck by a falling tree, the extensive debris would become a fire hazard, and could also choke the Ottawa River if storms were to wash large numbers of fallen trees into that watercourse, Mr. O'Brien said. Each tree represents about three-quarters of a cord of wood, he said.

The proposed grant, Mr. O'Brien said, would pay for removing the trees from about 13.3 of Harroun's 28 acres, buying tree seedlings and native-grass seeds for revegetation, a small herbicide budget to control invasive plants, and $75,000 for temporary fences to block deer from feasting on the new plantings.

"I planted 15 trees in one area to try to re-establish some vegetation," he said. "To a one, they were completely destroyed by rubbing and browsing."

Cheryl Rice, an NFCS soil conservationist in Lucas County, said the Emergency Watershed Protection Program's goal is to restore and preserve floodplain hydrology along rivers like the Ottawa, "and the trees help us do that" by reducing erosion and, during floods, retaining water and retarding currents.

But in exchange for the grant money, she said, the city would give the federal government a perpetual easement committing it to taking no action that would significantly change the river's water flow in the future, including activity on contiguous city-owned land not included in the easement area.

"We expect to come back in 30 years and see a tree canopy, not a fescue lawn," Ms. Rice said. "It is a permanent easement. You are giving up the right to build a building in there."

The most common uses for lands in the program, she said, are hunting and fishing, for which permanent improvements typically are unneeded.

"This is something I want nothing to do with," said Mr. Haynam, who predicted the grant's strings could end up costing the city huge sums for future park maintenance and restrict its ability to improve other nearby property, including the Lathrop House site. "I don't want to give our park to the U.S. government. We get a pittance today, and we pay forever."

Katie Cappellini, who joined Mr. Luetke in voting to pursue the grant, said potential government covenants didn't bother her, since future city politicians could just as easily mismanage the Harroun property.

"It's a prime piece of expensive property," she said, "but it's also keeping downtown Sylvania from being under water."

But Mr. Haynam said that even if the city negotiated specific terms with the conservation service that would allow it to proceed with plans to build a river walk along the Ottawa in a part of the park not involved in the easement, Sylvania could end up on the hook for future conservation projects not currently imagined if regulations change.

"The negotiations would be with different people than the ones who would enforce it," he said.

"This is a property-rights issue," colleague Todd Milner said. "I'm all in favor of bringing tax money into our community, but this dog doesn't hunt."