On warm days Joan Schmeltz often steps out of her Prairie Village home to enjoy the shade of tall ash trees and the breezes that ride up the West 64th Street hill.
Not long ago she stepped out and was gripped by a strange sensation. “I just felt my heart clench,” and then Schmeltz heard the growl of a chain saw down the road.
One of those ash trees that crown her Countryside East neighborhood was coming down.
“It was like I could feel the trees grieving,” Schmeltz said. “They were losing one of their buddies.”
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They’ll be losing many more in coming months.
To avoid a future of trees dying left and right at the jaws of a beetle called the emerald ash borer, Prairie Village officials have tagged for removal 80 percent of roughly 200 city-owned ash trees that have long been the pride of Countryside East.
Later this year and through 2016, the town plans to cut down much of the leafy canopy that arches 50 feet above the subdivision’s curving residential streets on the northern edge of Prairie Village.
The town is known more for its towering pin oaks. But beginning in 2013 Prairie Village identified more than 700 ashes on public property, with a concentration along a seven-block-wide swath of Countryside East — between Nall Avenue and Roe Boulevard, just south of 63rd Street.
A variety of young trees will replace those taken out.
“It’s incredibly sad,” said Hilary Logan upon spotting the red tag recently affixed to the city-owned ash in front of her home. The Rockhurst University professor and her husband bought the ranch-style house just a year ago.
“The trees are one reason we chose this neighborhood,” she said.
Public works director Keith Bredehoeft said Prairie Village is working with residents to determine the numbers of ash trees to be kept alive through periodic treatments.
He said the city aims to get ahead of an emerald ash borer onslaught that arborists warn will decimate neighborhoods throughout the area within a few years.
“We’re trying to be proactive,” Bredehoeft said. In a May 27 letter to residents he wrote that the city’s approach will “prevent a situation where all the ash trees are dead at one time.”
One question confronting Prairie Village and other municipalities: Is it wiser to remove and replace uninfested ash trees now, at a cost of $1,000 or more per tree, or to treat them with chemicals every year or two to keep the invasive bug at bay?
In the Countryside East subdivision, the city has selected a few dozen trees on the public right-of-way to be treated for a decade at public expense before they’re removed.
“We don’t see treatment as a permanent solution,” Bredehoeft said. “We see it as a bridge to planting the next tree.”
In a few cases, homeowners are digging into their own wallets to treat trees that belong to the city — just to keep their yards under the shade they’ve been used to.
The city is OK with that. If those trees being privately treated don’t hang on, Prairie Village will remove and replace them at no cost to the homeowner, Bredehoeft said.
Residents Jim and Barb Miksch recently paid $720 to inject with repellant two ash trees slated for removal from the curb.
To them it made sense from both an aesthetic and economic standpoint.
The shade that the ashes provide lessens their energy bills. And where the Miksch home is located, on the neighborhood’s border near Roe, the tall ashes serve as an entry point to a cozy community that has long loved its canopy.
“You don’t just replace 40-year-old trees,” Jim Miksch said. “You do what you can to help them live.”
Elm to ash
A stone marker at the corner of Roe and 67th Street proclaims that Countryside East was established in 1951.
The neighborhood was conceived by homebuilder Asher Clint Langworthy and an Olathe banker named Frank Hodges. Curling through the middle is Hodges Street, running close to Ash Street.
The homebuilder’s son, Asher Langworthy Jr., still resides in a handsome home on Hodges.
He said the subdivision originally was adorned with American elm trees. But they were stricken by Dutch elm disease, which began ripping through the Kansas City region in 1957.
The Langworthy family chose to replace dying elms with ashes.
“We looked at the ash as the next best thing,” said Asher Langworthy Jr. “They were faster-growing and eventually would provide that canopy effect.”
He dismissed neighborhood lore that his father’s first name influenced his selection of trees. The elder Langworthy went by middle name Clint.
Despite the lessons of Dutch elm disease, which killed some 70,000 trees around the metro, developers and cities continued to plant a single variety of trees along residential streets.
Planners today recognize the risks of beautifying rights-of-way with a uniform column of trees of the same make.
“Tree diversity is one of the best guards against the kind of catastrophic loss we’re going to see with the emerald ash borer,” said Kim Bomberger of the Kansas Forest Service.
Yet Countryside East is covered by ash trees, including many that don’t look so lush after a half-century of city life.
Some residents say they’re happy to live without all the raking. Others who prize their canopy say the city is overreacting.
“It’s ridiculous, all this money they’re going to spend taking down trees that aren’t dead,” said resident Tom Davidson.
Still, the dreaded beetle named for its emerald hue has already been found in a backyard ash cut down this year in Countryside East, said longtime resident Greg VanBooven of VanBooven Tree Care.
And as town planners and some tree experts see it, Prairie Village taxpayers will save money in the long run by removing trees now and not later, when contractors with cherry pickers are apt to be charging more to meet exploding demand areawide.
Chemical injections that stave off pest infestations can cost more than $300 per ash tree, depending on the trunk size, and the most effective treatments are recommended every two years.
After repeated treatments the expense of keeping a tree alive years from now will exceed the cost of cutting down and replacing one today, said Dennis Patton, a horticulturalist with K-State Research and Extension in Johnson County.
“The sooner you get those young (replacement) trees in there, the sooner that the greening of a neighborhood starts to happen,” he said. “We’re three to five years away from this thing really exploding. Better to get ahead of it than behind it.”
The adjacent community of Mission Hills last year removed 164 of 330 ash trees on city property. City administrator Courtney Christensen said local taxpayers saved $100,000 in removal costs from officials bidding out all 164 trees at once rather than in increments.
Fifteen of Mission Hills’ trees deemed to be the healthiest were selected for periodic treatments. “There are four I’d like to keep forever,” said Christensen, “so children in the future can see how beautiful these ash trees were.”
About 1,000 ash trees are to be removed and replaced this fall within the Kansas City limits, said Kevin Lapointe, city forester.
However, Kansas City hopes to keep alive through chemical treatments most of the city’s remaining 10,000.
Lapointe said one large ash tree can provide hundreds of dollars in annual benefits to the city. Its roots absorb rains that otherwise would fill gutters and storm sewers — itself a $200 value, according to the online National Tree Benefits Calculator.
“You can treat and preserve a tree for a small percentage of the costs of having to remove it now,” Lapointe said. “Everyone’s going to have different strategies … but it is financially reasonable to treat trees.”
The Prairie Village strategy with regards to the canopy over Countryside East could change in upcoming meetings with residents, said Bredehoeft of public works.
And more residents such as Carole Burns may choose to pay for treatments of ashes on the easement rather than watch them go bare.
Kaylen Boomer, who lives on 65th Street, said the abundant shade cools children on their walks home from Highlands Elementary.
“If we don’t have mature trees, we’ll lose potential homebuyers to Fairway, to old Leawood,” Boomer said.
“I would suggest the city treat these trees one at a time and as needed. They may be looking at their future budgets, but we’re looking at the trees. We see them every day.”