The holidays have wrapped up, a new year is underway and it’s time to start tackling those recently acquired bills.
For some homeowners, there’s a new one in the pile: an increase in HOA dues, courtesy of a metallic green insect called the emerald ash borer.
As the beetle infestation spreads through neighborhoods across the country, homeowners associations are being forced to decide whether to treat their trees or remove and replace them.
In communities brimming with ash trees — and we’re talking oodles of them in the metro area — the costs can be daunting.
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“Some HOAs have certainly had to raise their dues to deal with those issues,” said Dennis Patton, a horticulture agent with Johnson County Kansas State University Research and Extension.
Some experts say that the United States has an estimated 8 billion ash trees and that the emerald ash borer infestation has already destroyed between 150 million and 200 million. Kansas City parks officials estimate the area has 4.6 million ash trees. And a substantial number are in HOAs.
“For a lot of the subdivisions built in southern Johnson County in the ’90s, that was the tree of flavor,” Patton said. “So every house pretty much got an ash tree.”
In many subdivisions, homeowners are responsible for the trees in their yards and also those along the streets in front of their property. But what many don’t realize is that in HOAs, they’re also responsible for the trees in common areas, such as the green space around the entrances, swimming pools, tennis courts and clubhouses.
And while many HOAs have reserve funds for special or unexpected expenses, some are finding that those aren’t enough to cover the costs of dealing with the emerald ash borer.
Last year, the Waterford Homeowners Association in Leawood increased its annual assessment from $770 to $870, earmarking the extra $100 for the long-term treatment of the ash trees along the subdivision’s streets and in parking and common areas. Of those more than 300 trees, nearly four dozen were in fair to poor condition, a tree inventory found.
At a meeting last summer of the Wilshire Homes Association in Leawood, board members said insect damage eventually could result in “a reforestation” of the subdivision. One homeowner in an adjoining subdivision, they said, had recently spent $3,000 to remove two trees invaded by ash borers.
A tree management company counted more than 200 ash trees in the common areas and along the streets in the Wilshire subdivision. All were rated in good or fair condition. Some were marked as having limb failure and trunk decay, and a few were noted to have significant canopy failure.
In December, the Wilshire HOA increased its annual dues by 4.5 percent, to $810, to help with increased expenses and contribute to its reserve fund.
Officials with cities in the metro area have been conducting educational programs for HOAs to discuss the issue. Leawood’s Park and Recreation Department has held several meetings for HOAs since late 2015.
“This is a significant issue to a lot of home associations,” said Brian Anderson, superintendent of parks for Leawood. “There are some streets in our town where every street tree is an ash tree.”
Indeed, the city says ash trees make up nearly 25 percent of the trees in Leawood, with about 9,100 ash trees in the city’s right of way alone. The city estimates that its long-term investment in those trees is $13.6 million.
Anderson said he’s heard of some cases of ash borer infestation in the older part of the city and one in a neighborhood near 135th Street and Mission Road.
“The numbers are going to keep growing, because they’re here,” he said.
As in Leawood, ash trees represent about a quarter of the urban forest in Lenexa, that city’s website says.
“Heavy infestations of emerald borer have been found in multiple Lenexa locations,” it says.
Many HOAs are keeping residents informed through their websites and newsletters. In a June 2016 message on its website, the Oak Hill Homes Association in Lenexa said that it was working with a company to treat trees and that the company was providing services to homeowners at a “greatly reduced rate.”
Patton said the emerald ash borer is now well established throughout the metropolitan area.
“EAB is continuing to spread, and the number of trees we’re finding with it is continuing to grow, just as expected,” he said. “On the Missouri side, they’ve pretty much said every county has EAB. In Kansas, it’s in Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Douglas, Jefferson and Atchison counties.”
In southern Johnson County, Patton said, it’s still difficult to see the signs of infestation unless you know what you’re looking for.
“In KCK and KCMO, where it was widespread faster, we’re seeing more and more devastation from it,” he said.
Patton, a former HOA president himself, said he gave presentations on the emerald ash borer to about half a dozen homeowners associations last year.
“I’m starting to hear from more now,” he said.
Sometimes, the way HOAs handle the issue can create animosity, Patton said.
“I’ve seen HOAs get in conflict where someone says, you chose to treat my neighbor’s tree but not my tree,” he said.
Some HOAs have been proactive in tackling the issue.
In a message in the fall 2013 Leawood Homes Association newsletter, president Michael Zanders said an increase in annual dues was necessary because of the emerald ash borer.
“As an association, we must take every reasonable measure to protect the hundreds of ash trees that line our streets from disease,” Zanders wrote. “In that vein, we are working on a plan beginning in the spring to treat all the ash trees in our association that line the streets.”
To fund the treatment, he said, the board was proposing an increase in annual dues from $220 to $250.
“The homes association has not had to raise dues for many years, but because we want to protect our precious trees, the time has come for everyone to pitch in,” Zanders said. “We ask for your support and patience as we move forward on the treatment of these trees in the coming months and years.”
Not all HOAs are raising their dues to cover the costs of dealing with the problem.
In 2014, the Verona Gardens Homes Association in Leawood commissioned an assessment of its street trees by a certified arborist, then came up with a plan to remove and replace the 114 ash trees within the public right of way over a five-year period. According to the Verona Gardens Street Tree Maintenance Plan, the cost of removing the ash trees from 2014 through 2020 is about $39,000 and replacement of ash and other trees is estimated at about $44,750.
HOA dues and reserve funds will cover the expenses, according to the plan.
“No special assessments or dues increases are anticipated to finance the implementation of the plan,” it said.