City Wants To Fine Woman For Tree Stump

By Amy Davis

HOUSTON - One woman is asking Amy to help resolve a standoff of sorts.  It's an eastside homeowner versus the city, fighting over a dead tree and exactly who has to clean it up.

After almost two years of back and forth, KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Amy Davis clears up the mess once and for all.

Every time Mary McClain steps out her front door, she gets ticked off all over again.

"It looks like a mess," said McClain, staring out across her front lawn. "I've looked at it for so long, and it just ruins the look of my front yard."

The mess is what's left of an old oak tree. Hurricane Ike got the best of it in 2008. When the tree fell down across the roadway, McClain called the city.

"Next morning, they came and cut it up, hauled it off, but they left this," said McClain, pointing to a huge uprooted tree stump at the edge of her property, near the street.

"I let it go because I thought they were coming back with heavier equipment to get it up. And then since January, I have called almost every other week," she said.

McClain didn't hear a word for nearly two years. Then she got a bright orange violation notice and letter from the city of Houston. The letter lets McClain know the dead stump is a violation of a city ordinance and that if she doesn't remove it, she'll be fined.

"They say even if it's on their property, it's still my responsibility to move it," McClain said.

The lines are drawn, but in this case they're a bit blurry.

McClain said her husband planted a stake years ago to mark where the city's easement, or right of way, starts in their yard. She said the oak tree has always been in the right of way, and she thought that made it the city's problem.

"They've got me so confused. I don't know what they're talking about," said McClain.

City Attorney David Feldman said right of way or not, the city's not picking it up.

"Even if was within a right of way, since it is private property, the city would have no responsibility to remove it unless it was an obstruction of some kind," Feldman explained.

He said the city only removed part of the tree because it was blocking the roadway and that crews would also clear debris off of public sidewalks. McClain's stump isn't blocking either.

But we didn't want to leave McClain up a tree, so to speak. Neither did Martin Spoonemore of Affordable Tree Service, who offered to grind the stump free of charge.

"You know, times are hard for everyone," said Spoonemore.  "It's not the first time or the last time I'll ever do something like this, Ms. Davis."

"I think it's wonderful of them," said McClain as she watched from her porch.

Part of the problem was an apparent change in policy. KPRC Local 2 was told that in previous years the city would remove dead trees in the city's right of way even if they were not an obstruction. But the city employee told Davis, "If this is the way the new administration is doing it, I can't argue."

If you want to figure out where the city's right of way starts on your property, you can always look up your plat at the county tax office or even online at the Harris County Appraisal District's website.

Feldman said most right of ways in Houston are 40 feet wide. Using the center of the street in front of your home, you would mark 20 feet in each direction.  Everything in between is usually the easement.

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