About 30 trees are caught in a legal tug of war between an Edina homeowner and the city, which says they're a safety hazard for motorists and wants the owner to remove them at a cost that could reach tens of thousands of dollars.
Douglas and Jill Benner's home sits on a corner of Sally Lane in Edina, where a long row of tall arborvitae and a few pine trees shield the side yard from traffic that whizzes by on curving, twisting Valley View Road.
Nineteen years ago, a previous resident planted the shrubs in the city right-of-way at the suggestion of a city employee who told the homeowner he couldn't put up a fence.
Now, the city wants the Benners to pay to remove the evergreens. That could cost the Benners a lot of money -- perhaps as much as $20,000, Edina's mayor said.
The Benners contend that the "T" could be made safer if two large fir trees on the corner of their lot were trimmed and a new street sign were added on Valley View warning drivers that the intersection was ahead. At a recent City Council meeting, members were split on the issue, with some arguing that the city had to enforce its ordinances to the letter while others were willing to consider keeping some of the trees.
"We made a decision based on facts, and the ordinance gives us clean area authority to remove vegetation," said council Member Josh Sprague. "I don't believe we should go back and second-guess what staff has brought to us as an issue of public safety."
Mayor Jim Hovland agreed that it is a safety issue, but he said he wants to see if the problem can be solved with less-drastic measures.
"Why not do something conservative that takes care of it and doesn't involve decimation of their yard at a cost that might approach $20,000 for 30 trees?" Hovland asked.
The Edina city attorney is looking at issues raised by the Benners and will report back to the council on Tuesday. Though the evergreens are in city right-of-way, Edina's policies require homeowners to pay for their removal.
The Benner home is in a hilly, heavily treed part of the city where many homes have landscaping and vegetation hugging roads that twist and turn. Evergreens in the Benner yard sit about five feet from the street. Because Valley View curves as it approaches from the south, drivers exiting from Sally Lane have to edge the nose of their vehicles out into the street to try to see if any traffic is coming from the south.
In September, almost 60 people signed a petition to the city asking that the Benner hedge and a shrub in another yard be removed for safety reasons.
"The Valley View/Sally Lane intersection is an accident waiting to happen," it said.
But evidence collected by the Benners, who declined an interview request from the Star Tribune, indicates that there has not been an accident at the intersection for at least 10 years.
"Needless to say, we were alarmed" by the city order to remove the evergreens, Douglas Benner told the council at a meeting this month. "Not only would it be expensive; it would ruin our yard and would impair the safety of the children playing in it. ... The trees were planted 19 years ago at the city's recommendation."
The Benners also dispute the city claim that the trees violate city ordinances. They hired a traffic engineering consultant, who disagreed with the city's consultant about how much vegetation needs to removed to make the intersection safe. The council agreed to suspend the city order to remove the trees by Nov. 14 while the city attorney reviews city ordinances.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan