John Michaels takes landscaping seriously. Michaels and his wife recently built their four-thousand-square-foot dream home in Prairie Village, but he still does all his own lawn work. “I love it—and I’m picky,” he says. “I don’t want big riding lawn mowers going across my lawn, rutting it up.”
Another thing Michaels didn’t want: the sweetgum tree planted between his sidewalk and the road, which locals call “the right-of-way.”
Michaels plotted to rid himself of the tree, setting off a protracted legal battle and sparking a heated confrontation that led to the forced resignation of a member of the Prairie Village Tree Board.
It’s an incident that not only shows just how seriously Prairie Village takes trees but also exposes tensions in a sought-after inner-ring suburb where the lots are often worth more than the modest homes sitting on them, prompting a wave of “teardowns.”
Sweetgum trees, which dot the south side of the city and first-generation suburbs, were once trendy. They’ve fallen out of favor, mostly because of their hard, spiky “gumballs,” which litter yards and sidewalks. In Prairie Village, where a ten-member tree board hosts monthly meetings, the trees are not on the list of forty-seven approved species for planting on city property.
“There’s nothing positive about that tree other than the shade,” Michaels says. “In a lot of cities, they are actively removing them.”
When he was building his home, Michaels asked if he could pay to remove the tree, replace it with a five-inch white oak and donate a thousand bucks to the city’s tree fund. His offer was opposed by several people, including neighbor Connie Link McKenzie, at the time a member of the tree board. “I was talking to her about this tree one day in the street when we were building the house,” he says. “She said I shouldn’t have built a home where I had to cut down trees.
“Prairie Village has experienced a construction boom over the past several years,” Link McKenzie says. “The smaller lot sizes have exposed our mature hardwood street trees to injury and/or death during the building process.”
Things boiled over when Michaels’ contractor started to cut down the tree. He was confronted by Link McKenzie, who used abusive language.
“I joined the Prairie Village Tree Board with the hope of helping our community protect one of its most prized hallmarks,” says Link McKenzie. “My passion for our city trees, the stress and high-tension of the situation, and finally the rude and dismissive attitude of the [contractor] culminated in the loss of my composure and comments I regret.”
The city’s public works director, Keith Bredehoeft, confirms that Link McKenzie “was removed from her position on the tree board… based on behavior that did not represent the city well.”
The fight didn’t end there. Michaels read through city code and learned there was no law to prevent him from killing the tree—a loophole the city has since closed with a new ordinance. So, last October, Michaels went out and “drilled about fifteen holes in this tree and put herbicide in it.”
“I told the city, ‘Hey, I did this, so it’s probably going to die anyway, so let’s just bring it down,’” he says. “There’s no laws against it. That’s the best part.”
Bredehoeft was “very surprised” to get Michaels’ call. “Mr. Michaels was told not to remove the tree,” he says. “He clearly understood this. Subsequent to understanding this, he called me and told me he knew the tree would be dead soon. This action triggered all that followed.”
The city dispatched an independent arborist to appraise the tree. That arborist told Michaels he likely hadn’t killed the tree because it was dormant and not sucking up the herbicide. “He tells me, ‘The chances that you put enough herbicide in there to do anything is very small,’” Michaels says.
Because the tree was valued at four thousand dollars, the city referred the matter to the Johnson County District Attorney, who declined to press charges because it was unclear that Michaels had violated any law. Rather than drop the matter, the city wrote up Michaels for doing work in a right-of-way without a permit.
“They took me to court saying I killed a tree,” Michaels says. “I just defended myself. For four grand, I’m not going to spend five grand on an attorney. My question to the city arborist on the stand was, ‘Are you one hundred percent sure that what I did killed the tree?’”
The city prevailed in city court. Michaels was fined four thousand dollars to pay for the removal of the tree and the planting of a new one.
Then, in April, the tree started budding leaves.
“The tree was budding,” Michaels says. “In court, the arborist said I killed it, and this spring it budded. They said it would be between thirty and sixty days until the tree could be removed. Instead, after it bloomed, they sent a crew immediately. They took that tree down, stumped it and got rid of everything. They killed the tree after taking me to court for killing it.”
While taking down the living four-thousand-dollar tree, the work crew did approximately five thousand dollars of damage to the concrete in Michaels’ new driveway. Michaels says the city agreed to pay for it.
Michaels says word has spread about the tree, and he and his wife have been confronted about it while on walks in the neighborhood and at Starbucks. The tree is now gone, but tensions remain—partly, Michaels thinks, because his new house sits on a teardown lot.
“There’s a group of people in Prairie Village that absolutely hate the new construction,” he says. “The short-sighted people say, ‘Well, my property taxes are going up because this guy built this house.’ The people with some foresight say, ‘Wow, my property values are going up because this guy built this house.’”
Link McKenzie says that the situation has been challenging “for those of us who care deeply about our city’s urban forest” but that her involvement ended with her dismissal from the Tree Board. She declined to say whether she supported the city cutting down the tree after it budded.
“This particular ordeal has been costly to the taxpayers of Prairie Village in both time and money,” she says. “Our beautiful tree canopy is one of the many valuable assets that makes Prairie Village the lovely community it is.”