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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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Oaks croak, city of Madison blamed
Warnings were ignored; now glorious trees are dead
on
Tom Link by a felled tree, larva in hand.
Tom Link by a felled tree, larva in hand.
Credit:Bill Lueders

If anyone has the right to say "I told you so," it's Tom Link. He did. Four years ago, he told everyone who would listen - and some who would not - that the city's plan to locate a sewer under the street that runs past his home threatened the six giant burr oak trees that stood on either side.

The city of Madison blithely proceeded with its plan. Now, four of the six trees are dead and gone, except for stumps. The other two are barely clinging to life, and several other large oaks are dead or dying.

"It's sick," says Link, the son of famed UW scientist Karl Paul Link and peace activist Elizabeth Link. "The city destroyed this street so my neighbor could have water for his swimming pool."

Flash back to 2004. Link, who lives at 1111 Willow Lane in the Highlands on Madison's west side, repeatedly and passionately objected to the city's sewer plan, which allowed his neighbor to install a pool. (Other homes in the area had and still have septic systems.)

Link warned that the sewer would damage the roots and harm the trees. He made calls and wrote letters to city officials. He testified at committee hearings and before the Madison Common Council. He organized his neighbors to write letters and testify. He advocated alternative routes that would protect the trees. He lost.

"I did everything in my power to persuade the city not to destroy the historic integrity of Willow Lane and from killing 12 to 15 century-old burr oak trees," he says.

"That was his case," agrees Ed Durkin, one of Link's former neighbors, who served as Madison's fire chief from 1979 to 1984. "He told the city that, and the city ignored him. And the simple fact is, he was right."

The city hired an arborist, who recommended some changes to protect the trees. This plan was endorsed by city forester Marla Eddy, as well as by city engineering.

Eddy, contacted last week, was unaware of the trees' current condition ("Nothing's been brought to my attention") and failed to provide additional information. Wayne Buckley, a city forestry employee involved in the 2004 decision, did not return a phone call.

Mark Moder, a city project engineer who opposed one of Link's suggested alternative routes (ironically in part because it required removing too many other trees, which Link argued were of low quality), is surprised to hear the burr oaks are dead or dying. "We did take every precaution when we put that sewer in," he says - for instance, by sealing off the tree roots.

Link notes that one of the erstwhile giant burr oaks was infested with the twolined chestnut borer, an insect invader. He also found a borer larva on a recently felled oak near the road.

The city could claim the trees' demise is purely coincidental to its decision to put in the sewer. But Link argues that the root damage made the trees more susceptible to this pest. And he says the city left the branches of the infested tree just lying along the road, after insisting on the proper disposal of a dead tree on his own property.

Besides, says Link, "You can't go anywhere else around here and see this kind of destruction of the oak forest."

Not yet anyway.

Another secret assault

Even Watchdog is weary of returning to this topic, but it appears there was another serious unreported crime in Madison on Aug. 5, besides the savage youth-gang beating of a man walking to work ("Brutal Attack Kept Under Wraps," 9/5/08).

At around 3:30 a.m., a Badger Cab driver was assaulted after picking up some youths on Madison's north side. As he was dropping them off, one wrapped a sock or T-shirt around his neck from the back seat, choking him until he couldn't breathe. The driver, Brian Wuethrich, managed to throw a few punches, and the youths fled. He was surprised that police did not put out a news release.

"I was bodily attacked," says Wuethrich. "It seemed pretty serious to me. It really made me wonder what the hell else is going on in this town."

MPD spokesman Joel DeSpain, whose releases for Aug. 5 concerned three accidents and a weapons charge, says the officer on duty that night apparently made "a judgment call" against posting the incident. It was not mentioned in the daily briefing, and the police report was not typed until Aug. 20.

Reporters can learn of incidents by monitoring police scanners, checking in with DeSpain or the officers on duty, and checking a daily 911 call log. But the daily police reports made available often omit more serious offenses, which get routed for follow-up.

"It's not a perfect system," says DeSpain, who has asked the officers on duty to flag attacks on citizens.

Police Chief Noble Wray's goal is to "create a system" where reporters have access to all incidents, as opposed to having police decide what's newsworthy. He adds that reports are completed late because of staffing shortages.

"In the last year, we've added 30 cops," Wray says. "We haven't added any records staff." Last summer, the office's backlog reached 1,200 reports, four times what was once the threshold for authorizing overtime.

The MPD now has 20.5 records typists; it's asked for two more in 2009. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has authorized one, as well as the hiring of a new records manager.

Sequoya annoya

Why is the Sequoya Branch Library closed for an entire month just so it can move around the corner to a larger space? Good question.

"Here's the deal," says Barb Dimick, Madison's straight-talking library director. The city agreed to vacate its current, 12,000-square-foot space at Midvale and Tokay by Oct. 1. But because, as Dimick puts it, "the whole damn city process is slow," the Common Council did not seal the deal to build the new, 20,000-square-foot space until May 1. And since the work required six months, the new space won't be done until Nov. 2.

The library blew its deadline and needed an extension; it closed on Oct. 4 and completed the move-out last Friday. Its 120,000 volumes are in storage until the new space is ready.

"I hate having our library closed down," says Dimick, noting that Sequoya circulates more materials than any branch library in the seven-county South Central Library System. She hopes the new Sequoya will open the first week of November. But first, "we have to get an occupancy permit" from, you guessed it, the city. Good luck with that.

Local musicians blow it

The opportunity for local musicians to have their songs played as hold music on the city's phone system, announced in this column two weeks back ("Send In Your Songs," 10/3/08), has prompted a tremendous outpouring of...one submission.

That means callers on hold are still subject to some of the worst canned music in human history. But that's no longer the city's fault. Now it's the musicians'.

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