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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 28.0° F  Overcast
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Madison resident fights to keep landscaping at East Johnson and Baldwin
Backus is appealing his case.
Credit:Joe Tarr

Ken Backus just wanted to make his property look better. He didn't know he needed a permit to do so.

Back in 1996, Backus noticed landscaping that others had done at their properties around Madison and decided to do the same at his building at the corner of East Johnson and Baldwin Streets.

"I didn't know about a permit. That's not an excuse," he says, though he wishes the city did more to publicize the process. "Everyone I've talked to that has similar plantings on the terrace has no idea that there's a permitting process."

Backus' building is a nearly century old former pharmacy and, over the years, his landscaping efforts have grown quite elaborate. On the Johnson side of his property, his plantings give his ground floor tenant a unique closed in patio, buffering the busy traffic that goes by.

Now, the city says those plantings must be either removed or cut down. There are two issues at stake: the city considers the trees and bushes on Johnson too high; and Backus never got a permit for the trees in the Baldwin terrace.

Backus says the idea that his trees obscure motorists' view is silly. There is no record of an accident at the intersection since 2002. "I also asked [the city] for information on how many vehicles pass this intersection ... [from] 2002 through 2011," Backus says. "That figure is 72,000,000. What a danger my landscaping is, right?"

On the Baldwin side of the property, Backus has planted several small trees -- including a juniper, a Japanese maple, and a dwarf blue spruce -- in the terrace. The city says these don't meet Madison's approved list of plantings.

George Hank, with the city's development department, says that residents are allowed to plant flowers and gardens on terraces without approval. But trees require a permit.

"The problem is when you plant trees on the terrace, the city is going to take ownership of the trees," Hank says. "[The city] wants them to be approved if it's something it is going to have to maintain."

The same goes for cutting down trees. "The trees on the terrace are a city tree and you're not supposed to touch them at all," he says. "If anybody's going to trim them it'll be the city."

Kevin Briski, the parks division superintendent, says the approved tree list was developed to make sure that trees in the terrace are not invasive species and are appropriate for the location they're planted in.

Backus is appealing his case with the city, and has distributed a flyer (PDF) to build support. On Wednesday, Backus will ask the Board of Park Commissioners (PDF) to let him keep his trees on the Baldwin side of the property. He notes that he planted dwarf tree species that won't grow particularly high and interfere with the wires.

On the Johnson side of the street, Backus will likely have to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals, Hank says, in order to get permission to keep the trees.

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