Highland Park family worries neighbor's tree will damage home, city can't help

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. (WLS) -- A suburban family says there's nothing to do but wait for a dangerous tree to come crashing through their home, and turned to the I-Team after their efforts to get the tree cut down ended in frustration.

ABC7 consumer investigative reporter Jason Knowles found your village or city may not be able to do as much as you think.

When storms are headed toward Highland Park, one family said they always rush to the basement. Not for fear of tornadoes but instead their neighbor's giant, rotting tree.

But their village is limited in its ability to take action and solve their tree trouble.

"It's terrifying to live in a house knowing that my family is at risk," Elizabeth Tang said.

When Tang called the I-Team about tree branches falling on her roof, they were not expected to find such an extreme scene. The branches, which fell from a neighbor's tree during a spring storm, are themselves as big as a tree.

"We were thankful that no one was hurt. Our house and our property did sustain damage," she said.

While the trunk of the Norway Maple grows from the neighbor's yard, the majority of the tree looms above the Tangs' home, specifically their 7-year-old daughter's bedroom.

"The bulk of the tree, 80 percent, is on our property," she said.

The Tangs talked to their neighbors, offering to help pay for the tree's removal, But they said their neighbors refused, stating the tree provides nice shade. So the Tangs hired two tree experts who concluded the "likelihood of failure falls somewhere between possible and probable."

"The tree is at the end of its lifespan, is what the arborists explained to me and it's starting to decay and rot from the top down," Tang said.

The Tangs said they sent their neighbors these official arborist reports and said they offered to pay the entire cost of the tree's removal. The neighbors told the city that their own arborist concluded the tree is fine.

So the Tangs went to City Hall. Highland Park sent the neighbor two letters requesting they work with the Tangs. Nothing happened.

"Our code does not allow us to cite a tree that overhangs on someone's private property," said Ghida Neukirch, Highland Park city official. "I believe our approach is fair and has worked well for the city of letting neighbors work together to address these concerns."

"That was frustrating," Tang said. "Because they don't have any ordinances in their city code they were unable to do anything for me and I'm left to fend for myself."

So the I-Team called Highland Park. They immediately sent out the city arborist for a "comprehensive assessment." They determined the tree exhibited "significant storm-related damage, structural weaknesses, and insect activity." The city advised the neighbors "to take action." Still nothing.

"We have offered her an opportunity where we would hold mediation services to bring the two parties together, provide a win-win solution, and the other advice we gave her is that she can prune back the part of the tree that is overhanging her property," Neukirch said.

If the tree dies after that trimming, the neighbors could sue the Tangs for damages.

Cities like Chicago, Northbrook, and Skokie have ordinances allowing citations to homeowners with dangerous trees and even ordering removal. Would Highland Park consider changing its ordinance?

"We are always amenable to code amendments if it serves the best interest of the community," Neukirch said.

The I-Team called and wrote to the Tangs' neighbors but they never responded.

Before taking any action in a neighbor dispute, check your local ordinances to make sure you do not violate any laws. Experts say the best thing to do is start a friendly conversation with your neighbor to try to working things out.
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