Trees around the perimeter of Zorinsky Lake Park will be cut down over the next few years as a result of a directive from Washington.
The 30-foot corridor is expected to total about 40 acres of trees.
The plan by the Army Corps of Engineers has angered some property owners, while others welcome it.
The federal government owns the land where the lake, built for flood control, is situated. The City of Omaha operates and maintains the park.
The trees are being removed to better delineate the park’s boundaries.
A number of homeowners around the lake say they are stunned by the decision. The loss of trees around the park will irreparably harm their views, they say, as well as lower their property values, damage habitat and alter the natural qualities of a park that the public has come to love.
“When you step onto those trails, it’s almost like being in another world; it’s very majestic and natural,” said Mickey Decock, whose home abuts the park. “I don’t understand why they would rush to cut down trees. This isn’t just about our property and how this affects us. It affects everybody.”
Neighboring landowners said they only learned about the plans in September. The contract for tree removal has been awarded, and removal is expected to start at the end of November or early December, according to the corps.
The primary reason for the tree removal is to prevent unauthorized uses of the parkland, said David Sobczyk, project manager at the corps. For the most part, those unauthorized uses are fences that extend onto park property, he said. But they also include some retaining walls, treehouses, birdbaths, benches and gardens that some property owners have installed since the park opened in 1993.
“It’s public land,” Sobczyk said. “We can’t allow anything to happen on that property for the sole benefit of any private entity.”
The first contract calls for 1 mile to be cleared between 156th and 168th Streets by April. Dreamscapes, a company based in Enid, Oklahoma, is being paid $254,250 for the work. Stumps will be ground to 6 inches below the soil surface, and mixed grasses will be planted in the clearings.
Sobczyk estimates that the entire project will take two to four years. About 70% of the perimeter will need tree removal. Based on the first mile, the entire project could cost between $1 million and $2 million.
That seems like an excessive amount of tax dollars to spend because treehouses and birdbaths have been installed on parkland, said homeowner Eric Watts, who would lose a buffer of evergreens and mature shade trees.
“Why doesn’t (the corps) go to people and say, ‘Get rid of your garden, get rid of your treehouse?’ ” he asked. “I think everybody would go along with that rather than lose the trees.”
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Sobczyk said a corps contractor has counted about 250 possible “encroachments” onto federal property.
One reason for the high number may that the boundary fence around the park doesn’t run along the actual boundary but sits 3 to 5 feet inside the park, and sometimes more.
Not everyone opposes the project.
Homeowner Joel Alperson said the view from his home has deteriorated as years of uncontrolled growth has taken place. He and a neighbor have paid for tree trimming and other maintenance along their property line because trees, shrubs and grasses encroached onto their land.
“From my standpoint, the growth and vegetation has been largely uncontrolled,” he said. “If they don’t do this, I can’t imagine how the city will be able to operate around the lake.”
Mark Underwood also welcomes the tree removal for many reasons: Dead trees are a fire hazard, limbs drop into the family’s yard and a prowler even scaled a tree to get into their yard. The thicket behind their yard is a place where people drink and some people go to the bathroom.
“I’d be in favor of restoring this area to tall grass prairie, (which is) as beneficial to other species of wildlife as woodlands are to others,” he said.
Under the contract the city has with the corps, the city is responsible for maintaining the perimeter.
The clearing of a 30-foot-wide corridor around the 10-mile perimeter of the park will make it possible for the Parks and Recreation Department to mow and maintain the boundary, federal and local officials say.
And, according to Omaha Parks Director Brook Bench, the change will create a new amenity at the heavily used park — a grassy corridor for horseback riding, snowshoeing, mountain biking, jogging and dog walking.
Bench said the additional mowing the city will have to do won’t be an added expense for the Parks Department. The department has a caretaker who lives at Zorinsky, and mowing the perimeter will be added to his duties, Bench said. The city plans to mow the corridor every 30 days, he said.
The 1,000-acre park includes a 255-acre lake, with the rest of the land being a mix of woods, grassy areas and park amenities. More than 380 properties ring the park, Sobczyk said.
According to a corps map, only a few short stretches of the park’s paved trails might have trees removed. Much more affected will be footpaths through the perimeter woods that provide a shaded, tranquil route for runners and walkers. And while the tree removal will create a grassy strip for hiking and biking, it will be an area exposed to the sun and directly along the backyards of homeowners.
That, too, concerns property owners like Watts.
“We’re worried about the privacy aspect,” he said, if the thick wall of evergreens behind his home is replaced by bikers, hikers and horses.
Decock said the tree removal will also be detrimental to the nearby Bauermeister Prairie, one of the few native prairies in the Omaha metro area.
Zorinsky is the first of more than a dozen federally owned dam sites in Nebraska where tree removal will take place, Sobczyk said. Others include Wehrspann and Standing Bear Lakes in Omaha and Holmes Lake in Lincoln. Sobczyk said Zorinsky was picked to be first because of the dense housing around it.
While some type of boundary protection is required by corps regulation, the 30-foot width is based on several factors. The city’s tractor can mow 15 feet at a time, so the width of the strip will allow the caretaker to mow the strip in an up-and-back trip. It will also allow the city to get heavy equipment into the corridor to remove problem trees.
“Our stance is, if the corps is going to do this, make it so that we can maintain it,” Bench said.
Sobczyk said the national impetus for better maintenance of 600-plus federal dam sites began after significant problems developed elsewhere. At Rough River Lake in Kentucky, a developer built an unauthorized subdivision on federal land around a dam. Homes have also encroached onto federal land at Gavins Point Dam in Nebraska and Table Rock Lake in Missouri, he said.
It’s not clear, based on national corps regulations, that tree removal is required to delineate a boundary.
A corps document published in the spring calls for the agency to be proactive in protecting its boundaries but notes that the agency could also use public education, signs, fences and boundary markers.
Reece Nelson, a natural resources specialist at the corps, said those other methods haven’t proven effective at Zorinsky. Additionally, they don’t provide the access needed to maintain the park and protect adjacent private property from damage from falling trees.
Watts said he and his neighbors paid 50% more for the lots their homes sit on because the land abuts the park and provides nice views, habitat and privacy.
“Everybody I’ve talked to assumes it will lower their property values,” he said. “Our trees come right up to our line, and that’s a value.”
Decock said the city and corps need to be more thoughtful about what’s being done.
“Some of these trees may be 70 years old,” she said. “They are beautiful and functional and home to lots of critters. This isn’t like mowing grass that will come back. I will never live to see these trees come back.”