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Tree cutting angers residents

| Saturday, Sept. 1, 2001

Some Penn Hills residents are angry about a plan to force them to remove trees on their properties that have roots burrowing into sanitary sewer lines.

One even says the municipality is using unfair tactics to have the trees cut down.

At the center of the controversy is an ordinance council passed in July requiring homeowners pay to cut down trees believed to be obstructing sewer lines.

Municipal officials maintain the problems in the sewer lines in question have already been 'televised,' using special videocameras to view the roots.

One homeowner, however, pointed out that the videotape he viewed was dated the day after a crew arrived to take his tree down.

At the time, there was an original list of 12 houses that were slated to have trees removed.

Rob Weiss of Senandoah Drive was one of those homeowners who showed up at the July meeting and suggested that the municipality do more 'preventive maintenance' of the lines.

Mayor William DeSantis and council directed water pollution control director Jim Schaffer to 'look into the situation' on Shenandoah Drive.

Weiss returned for the Aug. 8 council meeting, two days after tree removal crews had arrived at his home at 8:45 a.m., knocked on the front door and told his wife Debbie to move the cars from the driveway.

'Our son uses one for a car pool, so we didn't have any keys,' Debbie Weiss recalled, adding that 'there was no advance warning - they just set up their orange cones.'

Receiving word at work from his wife, Weiss promptly telephoned one of the municipal manager's secretaries on Aug. 6 and threatened to call police if the tree crew did not leave his property, which they did.

At the August 8 meeting, Weiss was told that he was correct in the assumption that his tree was not supposed to be cut down until all issues were resolved. He also learned that it was up to him to schedule an appointment to view the video of his sewer line.

When he arrived the next morning on Aug. 9 and viewed the tape, one of the first things he noticed was the date on the video.

'The film was dated Aug. 7, which was the day after the crew had showed up at the door to cut my tree down,' Weiss said. 'I was led to believe that this had all been filmed in advance. I asked to see any earlier films, and I was told that was all they had.'

Schaffer, who was not present when Weiss viewed the videotape, maintains that the sewer line was originally filmed sometime in May and that it was merely 'retelevised' on Aug. 7.

'We ran the camera up as far as we could, and once we were able to get the camera through the lines, we could still see where the roots were coming in,' Schaffer said.

Weiss admits that he saw those roots - along with the roots of five other trees that were growing into the same sewer line.

'I'd be perfectly willing to take the tree down if mine were the only roots in the line,' Weiss said. 'But what about the five other trees• And that's only one side of the street. What if they had taken my tree and then they still had problems with the sewer•

'I asked them if they planned to strip the street clear of trees,' Weiss said.

That is not the plan at this point, noted Schaffer, who stated when the ordinance was passed that 'we're not going to randomly go down the street and remove trees.'

Shenandoah Drive will probably be moved up on the priority list to have a protective 'slip-lining' or 'sleeve' installed into the sewer line.

Although it was not shown to Weiss, Schaffer said that 'when we took the first video, his was the only tree in the line. But it's growing season now, so we're going to have to use a root cutter for the additional tree roots.'

Nine of the original 12 trees have been taken down, and a new list of about 10 more is being developed.

In the meantime, the orange ribbon remains tied around the Weiss' tree, and they're hanging on to the $400 they would have been charged to cut it down.

As far as the issue goes, Weiss says, 'it's way past the tree now - this is called 'dirty pool.' It seems they showed up that Monday and tried to blitz everybody on that list.

'And when somebody put up a fight, then they came back with a camera after-the-fact, to do what they said was already done,' Weiss said.

At this month's meeting, Jefferson Highlands resident Lois Sharlock urged council to rewrite the tree removal ordinance, especially the designated distance of up to 50 feet from tree to sewer line.

'In its current form, this ordinance is excessive and random,' Sharlock said. 'It constitutes an invasion of homeowners' rights.'

Council passed the measure 4-1 in July, with Councilman Bob Sevcik voting against it. At the time, he said he believed that 'we are going to rue the day this was passed.'

Municipal Planning and Economic Development Director Howard Davidson asked council to table the legislation so that he could rewrite sections - especially the '50-foot radius' clause.

Tom Jewell can be reached at tjewell@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8516.

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