Uprooted: How one tree is causing issues in a South Bend neighborhood

Uprooted: How one tree is causing issues in a South Bend neighborhood

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – For more than 40 years, a towering tree has been causing frustration on the northwest side of South Bend. Those who live in that residential area say that tree is dying and that could mean big trouble for those who live around it.

But as ABC57 Investigates learned, the neighborhood can’t stop it from falling.

Frederickson Street is normally a quiet street on the northwest side of South Bend, but neighbors say that a dying tree is just waiting to make some noise.

“The neighbor is going to be the one to catch the hell because it could take out the back of his house and possibly even the neighbor’s house on the other side,” Dwayne Benac, a Frederickson Street resident who lives right next door to the tree, says.

Benac has lived on Frederickson Street for more than three decades and seen the issues with the tree throughout the years, including watching it slowly splinter.

“[It was] approximately 18 years ago, or 15, somewhere in that area, when the tree came down the first time and took out the house next door,” Benac said.

The house that stood next to Benac’s, where the even more massive tree sat, is gone. It’s now a vacant lot, but 70 feet of the oversized oak remains.

So, you might be wondering, why can’t neighbors, or the city, just chop it down?

“We’ve made every attempt we could to get that taken care of and the parks department refuses to turn around and do it because the arborer says there’s nothing wrong with the tree, it’s got leaves on it,” Benac says he was told.

So ABC57 Investigates reached out to the city of South Bend and we were told a different story.

It sent us a statement saying, “The City Forestry team examined this tree and determined that it is at risk of falling into the neighboring yard, and has sent letters notifying the property owner of the tree’s decay. Because of private property rights and because the tree does not threaten the public right of way, this is a civil issue between the two property owners and not within the city’s jurisdiction to remove.”

ABC57 decided to get an opinion from a third-party, so we called an expert out to the lot to see the tree and determine how critical the situation is with potential of it falling.

“It’s being undermined by the cavity and the animals and insects that are chewing away at it,” Walt Temple of Walt Temple Tree says. “It’s an open-faced cavity and you can see that the fungus materials and mushrooms and everything that grows off of dead wood is growing right off of that tree.”

Temple went on to say the oak needs to come down immediately, and he says despite its size, it won’t cost a fortune to take down.

“I think we’re in the ballpark of 500 or 600,” Temple says.

And the fact that it’s in that price range is another reason why leaving the decision between the neighborhood and the lot’s owners doesn’t sit well with residents. Benac says the property has changed hands over the years and he’s never met the current owner.

He says it’s time for the city to act.

“That’s plain negligence, cause if you know that’s bad, get rid of it, take care of it. Don’t wait until somebody gets killed,” Benac worries.

Benac says he worries every storm that it could come down.

But since this is all considered a civil issue, neither Benac nor Temple nor any of the homeowners in the tree’s “drop zone” can do anything about the slowly falling tree.

According to St. Joseph County documents that we found, the lot is still privately owned by a Florida company called Beneficial Management Inc.

ABC57 investigates tried to track down the company. We made calls and left messages for almost a dozen numbers associated with the business, its former owner, and a new company associated with that owner.

None of our calls were returned.

Then, we we’re told by the St. Joseph County Auditor’s Office that the county commissioners are “holding the property,” like it often does with properties on the tax sale. The Auditor’s Office told us Beneficial Management Inc. has until this September to pay the outstanding balance the property has accrued over the years.

Currently, that balance is more than $16,000 in penalties.

So, if you add it all up, the cost of the property in the county documents lists it at $600 and if you factor in the cost to take down the tree (another $500-$600), plus the penalties, it’s a pretty penny to give these residents peace of mind.

ABC57 Investigates reached out to the county commissioners to talk about the tree several times, but they have not returned our requests.

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