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As Branches Dropped, Friction Rose

Steve Houser assesses the pruning needed to make this tree safe without removing it. He offered to prune the tree for free for the verteran in order he and the neighbors could compromise.
Steve Houser explains the pruning that will need to be done so the neighbors can both be comfortable with the tree.

Published November 2, 2012 By KATIE FAIRBANK


Neighbors at odds over whether weathered elm needs to come down.

Eleanor Toker seethed each time she saw the tree across the street. The elm had dropped branches for a couple of years. As each limb fell, her frustration grew. She didn’t want to go to the tree’s owner, Steven Pundt. She’d tried that before and she said he became indignant. “I don’t want to talk to him about it. He gets upset,” Toker said. “But if you happen to be in the wrong spot you can be a victim of his tree.” Pundt doesn’t agree with much that Toker has to say. But he says she’s right in one respect. He doesn’t want to hear what she thinks about his elm, a once-graceful tree that has shaded the front yard of his Duncanville home since he bought the property in 1973.

“She’s just trying to stick her nose in somebody else’s business,” said Pundt. “This has gone on for several years, her wanting me to cut the tree down. No branches are going to fall and hurt her. She’s across the road.”

The protracted battle over the Duncanville elm — one of the largest trees along the neighborhood street — reached a fever pitch in September when a large limb crashed onto Pundt’s lawn and driveway shortly after a vehicle was moved from beneath its branches.

Toker decided then to contact Problem Solver.

“I can’t see how he can let it go any farther, letting one huge branch after another fall. I’d like you to do something about it,” Toker said, adding that she believes an infant who lives next door to the tree is particularly at risk. “Somebody has to care about a small human being that is in danger. … The city needs to understand they need to lay down the law and that he has no right to endanger any passerby.”

The city has heard many times from Toker but says there is nothing about the tree that prompts action.

“We don’t think it needs to be cut down,” said Duncanville’s director of public works, Steven Miller, who had a specialist check out the elm. “If it was dead, we’d get it down. They don’t last forever, but it doesn’t need to come down now.”

In fact, the American elm tree is probably already a bit of a survivor. More than 100 million elm trees that once lined America’s main streets died between 1930 and 1980. The trees were felled by Dutch elm disease, a fungus spread by beetles that probably arrived on infected logs imported from Asia.

“The tree is probably 50 years old. I’d hate to kill it and cut it down. It’s not the prettiest tree in the world, I grant you. But I’d like to save it, maybe balance it a bit better,” Pundt said.

I called Steve Houser, a certified arborist, master gardener and owner of Arborilogical Services Inc., who agreed to inspect the tree.

After checking out the elm, Houser said the tree was in ill health and had suffered a wound at some point, which started the series of falling branches.

“That is what caused the primary limb to fail. It fell on a couple of others, causing them to break off,” he said. “He’s lost about half of the tree now. The rest goes out over his house, his driveway and the neighbor’s. Some of that is dead.”

Houser said there are limbs from two inches to six inches in diameter that should be cut or “they’ll eventually start falling on the house or the car.”

However, Houser backs up Pundt’s and the city’s assertion that the tree doesn’t need to be cut down.

“I don’t see where it’s going to end up in any other neighbor’s yard. That would take unusual circumstances,” he said.

The branches on the tree are long and the work would be time-consuming, Houser said. Normally, he would charge between $800 and $900 to do the job.

But since Pundt is a disabled Vietnam veteran in a difficult situation and on a limited budget, Houser said he would bring in a crew to fix the tree for free.

“We will help him out. Someone who has served his country shouldn’t have to go through that,” said Houser, who promised to schedule a time to work on the tree in the next few weeks.

As the tree heals, hopefully so will the neighborhood.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” said Toker. “I’m really, really happy he’ll take out those branches. They fall without any warning.”

Read the follow-up article "American Elm Gets Promised Pruning As Does Second Backyard Tree."

About the author

Ms. Fairbank is a Staff Writer for the Dallas Morning News.

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