Benners remove trees at request of Edina

Doug and Jill Benner say the city bullied them into removing two trees that were at the center of a yearlong dispute with the city.

In a letter to the Edina City Council following the removal of the trees, the couple wrote, “We (and many in the neighborhood) are very upset over your approach to this situation. It is clear this is a case of politics over facts, and represents a method of persuasion akin to the bullying in our schools that you rail against with great fanfare.”

In response to the bullying accusation, City Manager Scott Neal said a reasonable person may not agree with the city’s assessment. Whether the trees blocked the sight line for drivers approaching the intersection is at the heart of the issue.

After the trees were removed, Doug Benner said, “Hopefully, it’s over.” He estimates the dispute that cost them $20,000 for legal fees and mediation costs.

Neal said they appreciate the Benners removing the trees as they requested. The city is planning to complete a new analysis of the sight line for drivers approaching the intersection to see if the removal of the trees has alleviated the problem, he said.

The Benners were asked to remove the two trees by Friday, Nov. 9, or the city would remove the trees and assess the cost to the Benners, according to an Oct. 5 letter written Neal.

“We have been in discussions with you for a year or more without success about the need to improve sight lines on Valley View Road and Sally Lane. Traffic safety is obviously of great concern,” Neal wrote.

Doug Benner said they were disappointed to receive the letter from Neal because they thought they were in the process of working out a settlement agreement with the city to identify which trees should be removed at the corner.

“We’re trying to find a solution,” Doug Benner told the Sun-Current before the trees were removed.

He had verbally discussed with Neal and Mayor Jim Hovland a settlement agreement in September and emailed a draft settlement to Hovland following the discussion.

The Benners wrote in an Oct. 19 response to Neal that the city had agreed to work out a settlement before anything was done to the trees. They have tried to meet with Neal and the council in a closed session to discuss the issue, but haven’t been able to, the letter states.

Neal said the city acknowledges the Benners thought they were working out an agreement, but the city council decided to not go that route.

The last time the council held a formal meeting to discuss the issue was a 40-minute closed meeting on Aug. 21, where meeting minutes indicate the council directed city staff to proceed to a resolution.

The Benners offered to remove two trees from the corner labeled trees No. 1 and 2. The city staff wanted trees No. 2 and 3 removed, which were the ones the couple had removed on Nov. 12.

Doug Benner said it was obvious the city was going to take out the trees on Monday, Nov. 12, when the city spray-painted the trees it wanted removed and the city forester was out looking at the trees, Doug Benner said. The Benners decided to remove the trees on their own because they believed, based on correspondence with the city, that the cost they would be assessed could be two to three times the market rate, he said.

The Benners have maintained for nearly a year that the trees aren’t violating city code and the city’s removal of the trees would violate the city’s code that states trees can only be removed if they are diseased or construction is occurring on the property.

“It felt like bullying. They have no legal basis,” Doug Benner said of the city.

The couple has also argued that the trees weren’t causing traffic concerns at the intersection, based on a study by RLK Inc., and trimmed back the trees to help clear drivers’ sight line as they approach the intersection. The couple had the study completed after the city hired WSB and Associates to complete a study, which concluded that all six of the spruce trees and 22 arborvitaes in the Benners’ yard needed to be removed.

Doug Benner said the city staff and council members have changed their minds so many times on the issue that the couple no longer trusted them.

“The city was stringing us along and trying to wear us down,” Doug Benner said. He said they were frustrated because they don’t have the resources the city has. They had to hire an attorney to help them while the city has a city attorney on staff, Doug Benner said.

When the city and the Benners entered mediation in January, the mediation attorney ended the second session after two hours because he was frustrated by the city, Doug Benner said. Mediation was discontinued after that session and they paid a couple thousand dollars for two sessions that didn’t result in a resolution, he said.

The trees were planted in 1992 at the suggestion of the city, according to the Benners. The previous homeowner provided a letter to the city verifying this and has copies of the records, according to the Benners.

The Benners say the issue began when an informational meeting was held on a proposed sidewalk along Valley View Road.

Two petitions have been filed with the city on the issue – one in September 2011 requesting the trees and arborvitaes be removed and a second in August 2012 stating the first wasn’t legitimate and requesting the city council cease its actions on the issue.

In the past year the council has approved removing the trees and the de-limbing the trees. Council members tabled a resolution at a July 17 meeting to remove all six of the spruce trees in the yard.

In the letter to the council following the removal of the two trees, the Benners write, “After speaking with several of you, I think we can agree that the ordeal that you have put us through the past year and a half does not represent a model process.”