The steps the city has taken to help remove a tree that obstructed a stop sign at the site of a fatal accident is at odds with city municipal code.
Mayor Jess Alumbaugh said Tuesday following a meeting with friends and family of Katie Maynus – the 18-year-old Oak Hill graduate who died after reportedly disregarding a stop sign at the intersection of Butler Avenue and Indiana 18 – that the city was sending the police chief with the family and friends to get permission from the property owner to remove the tree.
Alumbaugh said it is a misconception that the city owns trees in the area between the sidewalk and roadway, which is called an easement or right-of-way, and that the city must get permission from the homeowner before removing the tree.
According to Indiana laws, the right-of-way and objects in it are owned by the property owner.
However, according to Ordinance 9-2004 (§ 99.14), “... The city shall have the right to prune any tree or shrub on private property when it interferes with the proper spread of light along the street from a street light or interfere with visibility of any traffic control device or sign, at least ten feet back from the light, sign or device.”
The stop sign and tree in question are only a few feet apart.
Another ordinance from that section says, “The city shall have the right to plant, prune, maintain and remove trees, plants and shrubs with the lines of all streets, alleys, avenues, lanes, squares and public grounds, as may be necessary to insure public safety or to preserve or enhance the symmetry and beauty of such public grounds,” according to code § 99.12
The Chronicle-Tribune asked Alumbaugh if the city had any ordinances dictating who has the right to maintain trees in the right-of-way, and the mayor said, “We need to communicate with the homeowners to get permission if it’s on their property.”
Alumbaugh went on to explain that the state can use eminent domain to expand a highway, which doesn’t give a homeowner much say in the government modifying their property.
He then said, “If there are ordinances we can approve, we will start looking to approve that. Our city council deals with ordinances and we will have a committee look at this. I will tell you that I have – after this happened with the accident – I did tell the citywide maintenance director, ‘Hey, we have a lot of city intersections that don’t touch state highways. Can you be sure you’re checking to make sure we don’t have any signs that you can’t see because of tree limbs. So he’s going around checking that.”
Alumbaugh said city engineer Mike Graft reviewed the intersection and any complaints filed, and he said the city was not aware of the issue until the accident occurred.
“He said this has not been a hot spot in our community, not at all,” Alumbaugh said of his discussion with Graft. “I’m not sure where the hotspots are, but that would be interesting to look into… I’ll get with him and do a little look into that. Then we will evaluate that.”
Alumbaugh said previously that the city believes the tree was under INDOT jurisdiction, but INDOT public relations director Scott Manning said INDOT maintenance crews confirmed the tree was out of the state right of way upon inspection.
“That was an issue that had not been previously reported to INDOT,” Manning said of the obstruction. “We have some documentation that it had been reported to the city of Marion, perhaps before, but we checked going back three years in our customer service database, and we have not had any issue with a tree at that intersection reported to us. But when we learned of the crash and fatality and that there was possibly an obstruction there, we dispatched one of our INDOT transportation crews to investigate.”
When Alumbaugh was told that INDOT claims it has documentation of reports to the city, Alumbaugh responded, “I’ll have Mike look into that to see but what he told me is that right now this was not a spot where we really had any concerns raised.”
Alumbaugh said when the heard of the accident, a temporary “stop ahead” sign was placed halfway down the street.
The city has offered to lend trucks to haul away debris once the tree is removed.
The group that met with Alumbaugh announced that they received permission from the landowner to remove the tree, which will cost the group about $1,000.
INDOT is currently doing a study of the intersection, which Manning said could take six to eight weeks to complete.
“It’s outside of the state right of way, but to ensure that that would not be an issue going forward, we immediately trimmed the tree to address that situation,” Manning said.
Manning said jurisdiction over maintenance depends on the location.
“In this case, INDOT has a responsibility to place a stop sign and a stop bar, a pavement marking, along any side street that intersects with the state highway system,” Manning said. “But then beyond the reaches of the stop sign, along the city street, it’s the responsibility of the city, town or county government, to maintain the local street if you will.”
The Chronicle-Tribune reviewed the area and did not see a stop bar or pavement marking on Butler Avenue at the intersection of the state highway.
The mayor said he wants to see crews go around and identify any signs that have faded or are possibly obstructed to ensure motorist safety.
Manning said it’s important that motorists and citizens alert authorities of obstructions that may cause public health concerns. He said people can report issues by calling 855-463-6848 or by visiting indot4u.com.
The mayor said the city building is facing budget shortfalls and staffing issues, so he asked citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and report any possible issues to city hall.
“We want to be proactive, not reactive,” Alumbaugh said.
The number for citywide maintenance is (765) 668-4496. The number for engineering and traffic is (765) 382-3781.