Tree trouble: Townships and counties cope with safety hazards in road ditch rights of way
WORTHINGTON — Trees provide habitat for birds throughout the spring and summer, can be used as a windbreak and snow fence during the winter and generally are appreciated for the beauty they provide as the green leaves of summer turn into the reds, oranges and browns of autumn.
For all of the good benefits they offer, trees can also be a nuisance, particularly when they’re growing in the road ditches.
Now is the time of year when townships across southwest Minnesota ask property owners to mow the shoulder of their ditches and remove all small trees that may have sprouted up in the past year.
But what happens if those trees didn’t get removed when they were seedlings, and are now full-grown?
Well, it can be a touchy subject.
Earlier this summer, a farmer in rural Nobles County said tree growth in one township ditch, adjacent to a gravel road, had become so overgrown with trees that it was difficult for a vehicle and a livestock truck to meet without getting scraped by the branches. It will be even more of a challenge as combines and harvest equipment start rolling in a few weeks.
“You scratch your equipment to go down the road,” said the farmer, who asked not to be identified in print. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
Pete Bakken, chairman of the Beaver Creek Township Board in Rock County, has seen his share of tree issues over the years, and said dealing with them is a wild card.
“The best thing is if the landowner and the township can work together to figure out what to do with the trees,” he said. “Some people have a real attachment to the trees growing in the ditch — others could care less.”
Rules regarding trees in road ditches vary from township to township. Some, like Beaver Creek, have a full-time employee whose job it is, among other duties, to keep ditches along township roads clear of seedlings and woody-type bushes that crop up. Other townships may put the responsibility on the property owner to keep their ditches clear of trees. In some cases, if the property owner fails to keep the ditches clear, the townships will remove the trees and assess the property owner.
Problems arise, however, when the property owner doesn’t remove the trees or refuses to have them taken down.
Bakken said township boards — a form of grassroots government — sometimes don’t have policies to ensure the trees are removed.
In Rock County, for instance, there is a county township association, but Bakken said there isn’t a blanket policy regarding trees for all townships to abide by. As such, he could only speak for what is done in Beaver Creek Township.
“The responsibility in Beaver Creek Township is to take care of the trees that are causing a safety issue,” Bakken explained. “If the trees are hitting the road grader, we cut down what needs to be cut down so it doesn’t jeopardize our equipment.
“We have really tried in Beaver Creek Township to maintain the cleanliness of 33 feet (the township right of way as measured from the center of the road),” he added.
During last spring’s ice storm, Bakken said there were mature trees growing in the right of way —or just beyond it — that ended up falling on the road.
It isn’t just the concern of trees falling on the roadway, but of getting struck by vehicles, said Nobles County Public Works Director Stephen Schnieder.
In Nobles County — as in Rock — the county highway department is responsible for keeping trees out of ditches along the county road and county state aid highway system.
“People could go off the road and strike a tree,” Schnieder said. “They create a lot of problems.”
Nobles County has an ordinance on where trees are allowed, and in the right of way isn’t one of them.
“We want them planted back, away from the right of way,” Schnieder said, adding that if roads are reconstructed and the grade needs to be adjusted, trees planted too close to the right of way may have to be removed.
“It’s easier to have the people plant the trees at a more appropriate distance,” he said. That distance includes a minimum of 25 feet from the right of way or, in the case of a planned windbreak, a distance equal to that of a building setback.
“Trees get big and catch snow, which also creates a safety problem,” Schnieder said. “We have to put them in the appropriate location right away — it’s just good planning. No one wants to plant a tree and then have to see it go.”
Without having an ordinance regarding where trees are planted, Bakken said township residents should “get together and make a cooperative, mutually beneficial decision to all parties as to what to do with the trees in the ditch.”
Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of the township to maintain the road right of way. If they choose not to require landowners to keep the ditches tree-free, it could lead to disagreements.
“The problem with the township being responsible — if the township stonewalls the landowner, you’re just at a Mexican standoff and nobody gets anywhere but mad,” Bakken said. “It’s one of those things that nobody really wants to do anything with, but somebody has to.”
Back in the early 1980s, the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked farmers to cut the trees down that were growing in road ditches, Bakken said. If the tree was smaller than six inches in diameter, they could just cut it down. Trees larger than six inches in diameter, however, required the farmer to get permission from the landowner before cutting.
There hasn’t been a program since then to encourage tree removal in road ditches, other than state statutes, which don’t always get followed.
Angel Otero, a community service supervisor with Rock-Nobles Community Corrections, has taken work crews out to remove trees from road ditches for more than 20 years. The crew includes no more than seven individuals who are either serving jail time or owe the county money for court-imposed fines.
“I provide the chainsaws and I provide the bodies,” said Otero. “We take care of Rock and Nobles County.”
The work crews wait until fall, when all of the leaves are off the trees and the wood ticks have retreated for the season, before they go out to cut trees. Otero said he gets his assignments from the county, and his crews do work along the county road system.
“We cut them down and the property owners provide the tree killer,” Otero said. If chemical isn’t applied to the root system, the tree will simply grow back again the next year.
Who is doing the chemical treatment, and who is clearing the debris from the ditch, is determined before the crew does the work.
“Some of them could be up to 20 inches around — sometimes bigger,” Otero said of the trees.
Saplings, on the other hand, can be cut with a pruner or hand saw.
“If something volunteers, we try to keep them cut down when they’re small,” added Schnieder. “If you let them grow, it takes more work to get them down.”
On the county road system, Schnieder said the road right of way can be 100 feet wide or wider. Ditches along those roads must be maintained by the county, although Schnieder said it won’t stop anyone who wants to go out and clear the trees from the ditch along their property.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.