The Curtatone Clear Cut

More than a year after the surprise clear-cut of Beacon Street in Somerville, the Curtatone administration continues to stall and delay rather than taking action to provide accountability and closure.

Not Responsible

Video of the November 29th meeting of the Public Utilities and Public Works shows the latest steps in this frustrating story.

At about 37:40, the committee takes up item 206959, an order That the Administration deem Newport Construction and Northern Tree to be “not considered responsible bidders or offerers” for 5 years, reflecting their performance on the Beacon St Reconstruction..

More than a month ago, on October 25, the city solicitor opined that the city is able to impose this sort of limitation. Strangely the administration chose not take any particular action on the matter at that time, as if the Aldermen were asking the question for informational or entertainment purposes.

The minutes of the prior meeting are unambiguous:

Alderman Scott asked how the Purchasing Department would be aware if the city had a problem with a particular contractor. Chairman White pointed out that the city would have to lay a foundation, perhaps by having memo/letter on file, in order to disqualify a low bidder due to previous problems.

Alderman Scott’s motion that the Administration prepare a memo for the Purchasing Department deeming Newport Construction and Northern Tree to be “not considered responsible bidders or offerers” for a period of 5 years, in reflection of their performance on the Beacon St Reconstruction, was approved.

On Thursday, however, city staff did not bring this memo. Instead, they brought excuses based on a seemingly intentional misunderstanding of the request.

The Aldermen were forced to repeat themselves, almost exactly word for word, as to the result they are trying to achieve. The order remains in committee for another month.

Swept under the rug

At the end of that discussion, at 41:39 in the video, Alderman JT Scott inquires on the status of an item that was marked “work complete” in the Committee’s previous meeting – the idea of imposing a fine or a citation against the contractors for the value of the trees that were lost.

205010: That the City Solicitor advise this Board about whether the way in which the Beacon Street trees were taken down was compliant with state law and the city’s Tree Ordinance.

Items #205010, 205498, 206440, 206594, 206707 were discussed together.

Mr. Grossfield reviewed the documents he submitted for item 206594 and said that they would be sent to both the general and sub-contractors, rather than have the city lay the responsibility on just one of them. The complaint is ready to go as soon as city staff comes up with an amount.

On Thursday, the Administration’s representative admitted that the citations had not yet been sent. He did not know when that might happen. In response to the Aldermen’s surprisingly patient questions about the causes of the delay, the city official said that he was not expecting to have to discuss this matter.

This is, of course, because the order was closed a month ago with the assurance that the letters would be sent. The Aldermen were also not expecting to discuss the matter, because they were assured that it would be carried forward.

Of course, all of this is bit disingenuous, since both Alderman Scott and myself have been emailing members of the administration at least weekly for an update on the matter.

By 43:50 in the video, the committee has amended the order yet again to be sure that whoever takes up the matter in the next legislative session (2019) will be reminded to ask these questions yet again.

Relentless persistence

The fact that we have any facts at all are due to resident activism, FOIA requests, and the tenacity and patience of our Aldermen. This issue has come up at more committee and board meetings than I can easily count.

Based on FOIA requests:

The city administration, in various offices including Urban Forestry, Strategic Planning, and Law has found that trees were improperly removed, that our city ordinances and state law were not followed, and that the city can issue fines and penalize these contractors for breaking our laws.

All that remains is to pull the trigger.

A “Tree City”

Each of these bits of information has been extracted piecemeal, with our Aldermen playing a frustrating game of legislative whack-a-mole with the Curtatone administration. The video above shows a typical interaction on this matter.

Through all of this, it has become clear to me that the city administration, from the very top, has a strong desire to move on from this matter without any penalties or accountability for the wrongdoing.

If this is how we treat our trees in this “tree city” of ours, I have to wonder what else is getting swept under the rug under the Curtatone administration.

The Urban Forestry Committee

As I say in the letter below, Somerville is supposed to have an Urban Forestry Committee. Our Aldermen formally re-instated it in October of last year. As stated in our municipal code of ordinances, it will include seven residents, the tree warden, and the arborist.

This would be an amazingly powerful place for residents to come together with the city staff to share information and have the kind of face-to-face conversations that lead to the very most productive outcomes.

If you have the interest, you might forward the text below (or something of your own creation) to mayor@somervillema.gov and boardofaldermen@somervillema.gov.

To the Honorable Mayor and Aldermen of Somerville,

In October of 2017, the Board of Aldermen formally re-established Somerville's Urban Forestry Committee. So far as I am aware, there has been no progress in bringing that committee to its first meeting in the eight months between October and today.

Mr Mayor, I am writing to ask that you fill the seats on the Urban Forestry committee without further delay.

Like other city committees, Urban Forestry will provide a critical point of communication between city staff and the residents. Its charter is to provide information, outreach, and advice both to residents and to city staff. This will help us all to work effectively together to achieve Somerville's potential.

Given the level of development and construction planned for 2018 and beyond, this coordination is absolutely critical.

I urge the mayor to advertise and to fill these committees seats without delay.

Sincerely,
Chris Dwan
Resident, Ward 2

Caring for our saplings

There has been a lot of confusion about what, if anything, residents can do to help give our saplings the best chance of survival.

First off: never lock bikes to the trees. The chains, locks, pedals, and other metal parts bruise and tear the tree’s bark. We started with homemade signs to get this message out:

This last friday, the city has produced yellow signs with more details:

Specifically, please feel free to fill the “gator” bags with clean water. There’s a trick to it, as shown on the picture below. Water poured in by the zipper just goes right through to the ground where it will tend to run off and evaporate. Instead, find the hole on the back of the bag, which may be hidden by the white tag.

We’re all learning as we go here, and the city is playing a bit of catch up in terms of getting information out. There’s not a lot of information at The city’s urban forestry page, but we expect that to evolve in the coming months and years.

UPDATE: The website for the city’s urban forestry division now has a nice section titled, “how you can help.”

Open Letter – June 18, 2018

To the Honorable Mayor and the Board of Aldermen,

I am writing to ask you to take action to bring closure and a measure of justice regarding the trees of Beacon Street.

History

Somerville’s tradition of preserving and protecting trees, particularly those that give shade by roadsides, dates back hundreds of years. A book published in 1897, Somerville, Past and Present, describes rules imposed by the “selectmen” of the region as early as the mid-1600’s regulating what we now know as the town’s “shade trees.”

While these early rules predate the incorporation of the town of Somerville and have no legal standing, they are still useful as a guide.

More recently, in 2012, Somerville adopted the “Somervision” planning document. It calls for preservation of existing trees and commits to a steady increase in the population of trees both on public streets and in public land. This commitment is found in many sections of the document, including both transportation and development. Unfortunately, Somervision is no more legally binding than those ordinances from the 1600’s.

My point in sharing these examples is that our commitment to trees is not a recent fashion or some sort of emotional response to change.

Preservation of our roadside trees has been a part of our community for more than 300 years.

The Project

Between 2012 and 2015, Somerville contracted a firm named “Design Consultants Incorporated,” to develop a plan for the reconstruction of Beacon Street. This plan was approved by city staff in 2015 and was put out to bid by MassDOT. Newport Construction won the bid and has been operating according to this plan since 2016.

This plan, initiated, approved, and paid for by the city, specifies that Beacon Street should be clear-cut.

The public outreach around this project was misleading and factually incorrect. As late as 2015, posts on the city’s website and comments offered in public meetings stated that “several existing trees will need to be removed, but most will be preserved.”

Until October 2017, the actual plans were not made available on the city’s website. This changed in response to the outrage after a self described “scheduling mistake” by Newport Construction removed 37 trees in a single day, after they were specifically told to not proceed.

Based on information obtained from the city under a Freedom of Information Act request, the public notice and hearing process required under Massachusetts state law (Chapter 87, Section 3) was not followed. No hearings were held, no public notice was given, and no permits were issued for the removal of even one of the nearly 100 trees that were cut in 2016 and 2017, including the 37 cut on October 6 of last year.

The city has offered the technical excuse that these rules do not apply to “capital projects.” No mention of this exception is present under state law.

The city has also offered excuses for the lack of oversight based on the contractual relationship being between Newport and MassDOT, rather than between Newport and the city.

Justice

None of the above covers the fact that we were misled for nearly two years. In my opinion, both city staff and the contractors failed to provide even a bare minimum of consideration for the residents of Beacon Street.

To date, the only penalty imposed for any of this has been a negative performance review of the contractor by the state.

My attorney has counseled, and I agree, that the best path forward is one of collaboration with the city. Despite the fact that we live here, it is unlikely that the residents would have legal standing to bring suit against those responsible. Like those ordinances from the 1600’s, and like the Somervision document, I can at best offer guidance and advice.

It is up to the Board and the Mayor’s office to find some measure of justice in this sorry situation.

This project was planned by the city, implemented by the state, and overseen by both in an inadequate and occasionally illegal way.

Mr Mayor and honorable members of the Board, I am asking you to take action as you feel appropriate to give us the accounting, the justice, and the closure that we deserve. We residents were wronged in this process, and it is up to you to make us right.

Sincerely,

Chris Dwan
Resident, Ward 2

We saved some trees!

Somerville regularly hosts update meetings branded as “ResiStat.” On May 22, Mayor Curtatone announced that the city has requested that four of the remaining six trees are to be “preserved and protected.”

This is a great move, and I’m deeply grateful to the Mayor and his staff for the time and energy they put into making this decision.

Almost immediately, stakes and orange plastic mesh went up around those trees. We had hung prayer flags and informational signs on the trees. It suddenly felt as if the city had joined our team. The barriers are a daily visual reminder that resident voices and experience matter, even in the midst of Somerville’s construction zones.

Along with gratitude, I also feel regret that the city waited as long as it did to engage with this process. Four trees out of six is impressive. Four out of a hundred is a disaster.

New Trees on the Way

We’ve got some new trees going in! The first wave of saplings have been delivered and planted. The North end of Beacon no longer looks quite so barren. Apparently our one-person department of urban forestry has been engaged with selecting healthy stock to be installed, and also supervising to be sure that the trees are well planted.

Bureaucratic Doublespeak

A few of us got additional details by email:

I’m pleased to report that due to several unique circumstances on Beacon Street, the City has requested that MassDOT direct their contractor to protect and preserve four of the six remaining trees on Beacon Street. MassDOT has acknowledged and issued that directive to their contractor.

As you know, stakeholders have had numerous concerns related to tree removals that were part of MassDOT’s construction contract ....

This framing – of the city semi-helplessly requesting favors and consideration from the state and its contractors – comes up frequently with Beacon, with the Green Line Extension, with the Union Square Redevelopment, and with other projects.

Here’s a fact: Somerville commissioned the plans for Beacon Street from a local design firm. The state is paying the contractor, but this clear cut was planned and approved by the city.

That plan, by the city’s design, did not include the beautification measures we see on other streets in town. Somerville decided to cut down all the trees. It also decided to not burying the power lines, or even include basic beautification measures like decorative hooks for planters and holiday lights.

Apparently the city is now fighting a rear-guard action to put in a few features – but for the most case it’s far too late to make substantive changes.

Even worse, the details of the plans were kept effectively secret for nearly two years. Newport Construction’s “scheduling mistake” in October was a surprise to residents, to city staff, and even to our Board of Aldermen. That, plus freedom of information act requests, pushed things into the open.

They didn’t even do the basics required under state law: No notification or hearings were held, nor were permits issued, for any of the nearly 100 street trees removed in 2016 and 2017.

Plain and simple, Somerville didn’t live up to its own standards or follow state law on this project for more than two years.

Now What?

The city should hold itself accountable for the process failures on Beacon Street, should take a hard look at how this came to pass, and should make a course correction in how it engages with similar projects city-wide.

We should also track the data on tree removal and planting:

The Boston Globe recently published an article describing Boston’s failure to live up to its promises of re-forestation. While it was depressing, one paragraph caught my eye:

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2017, the city planted 9,809 street trees and removed 5,815 — a net gain of fewer than 4,000, city records show.

Somerville has not even been keeping count. We have no idea how many trees we lost in 2017, and we have no idea how many we plan to cut down in 2018.

We can and should do better.

Budgetary Requests for FY19

To the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen of the City of Somerville,

I am writing to ask for budgetary consideration for maintenance and protection of Somerville’s inventory of trees, particularly street or “shade,” trees. Below are three specific areas where I think that an investment is appropriate.

1) Balance the rate of tree planting with the rate of tree loss:

It is clear to me that 2017 and 2018 saw a significant reduction in Somerville’s population of street trees. This is true when we simply count up trees removed vs. trees planted. It becomes somewhat horrifying when I think of the biomass lost when we plant a sapling or two to replace a mature tree.

I understand that those saplings will grow. Still, it seems a reasonable goal that Somerville should not lose ground any given year.

Somerville is home to perhaps 14,000 trees. At a rough estimate, we lose 2 to 3 percent of those trees per year to various causes. This means that we should be replacing between 280 and 420 trees merely to maintain the number. In order to maintain the biomass – which is critical to the environmental benefits of an urban forest, we should plant perhaps double or triple that number.

My understanding is that the city’s budget for new tree plantings in FY18 was, perhaps, 100 saplings. This stark difference is a simple explanation for the number of standing dead trees that line our streets. Quite simply, we are cutting down many times more trees than we are planting, and we are doing this for several consecutive years.

I ask that the city significantly increase our investment in planting new trees, bringing plantings into alignment with expected loss for FY19.

Even a focused investment to take down and replace the standing deadwood around our city would be a good start.

2) Invest in beautifying Beacon Street:

The Beacon Street reconstruction project has been a long, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing project for many of us who live in Ward 2. Specifically, the decision to clear cut the street – leaving no mature trees whatsoever – means that we will be without shade trees of any significant size for decades. This has a significant impact on property values, on heating and cooling bills, on transit and pedestrian safety and comfort, and also simply on the experience of the residents as we go about our lives.

I ask that the city create a substantial fund to support large trees in planters, community maintained container gardens, parklets and other innovative uses of paved and parking lots along the street, and other similar features.

Based on conversations with other Beacon Street residents, I am confident that we will meet the city halfway on this, with shovels, trowels, seeds, bulbs, and cash in hand to support this effort.

3) Increase the consideration given to mature healthy trees in the all development and construction projects:

This is not a specific line-item in the budget. Rather, it is a request that the city shift to a policy of retaining our mature trees, scoping development to work around, rather than through them.

Succinctly, the city should not be cutting down mature, healthy trees. I understand that this will be both slower and more expensive. Based on my experience this year, and on conversations with many of my neighbors this year, I believe that this is appropriate.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Chris Dwan

Tree Hearings for Somerville Ave and Prospect Hill

There were tree hearings for work to be done on Somerville Ave and Prospect Hill this past Wednesday. I attended, along with a number of new friends and neighbors.

I came away surprised and impressed at the difference between these projects and our experience with the Beacon Street reconstruction. The city staff did a great job. They presented not only the work to be done, but also the effort that had gone into planning the work in a thoughtful and balanced way. They showed site maps and street cross sections, and explained the history that led to the necessity to access and replace various services.

As I said in my comments at the hearing – my first experience with this process started with October’s surprise clear-cut of Beacon. Because of that, I do not have a lot of trust or faith in our system. This hearing was a beginning, for me, of building trust with the city around how we plan and execute these projects.

The next steps in the process are governed by Chapter 87 of state law. Because objections were raised, the city staff will now make a recommendation to Mayor Curtatone, who will decide either to proceed or to change the plans.

I still believe that some changes are in order:

  • The city needs to place even more emphasis on preserving and working around our healthy, mature trees.
  • We should increase the budget for planting new trees to at least match the biomass that we are losing to sickness, construction, and all other causes.
  • We should emphasize continually refreshing our trees, rather than clear-cutting and replanting a street at a time. This will lead to a diversity of age among the trees, meaning that we never have a window like we have now on Beacon, with no mature trees for decades.
  • Wherever possible, the city should manage its own projects. The contrast between this city-led process and the State-led work on Beacon Street was like night and day.

The Mayor’s Decision

The law is usually pretty dry reading, and can get dense in a hurry. I was excited to find that Chapter 87 of the MA General Code, which governs “shade trees” is remarkably clear and easy to understand.

It first defines shade trees: “All trees on a public way or on the boundary thereof.” Simple enough.

For today’s purposes, I’m interested in Section 4:

Tree wardens shall not cut down or remove or grant a permit for the cutting down or removal of a public shade tree if, at or before a public hearing as provided in the preceding section, objection in writing is made by one or more persons, unless such cutting or removal or permit to cut or remove is approved by the selectmen or by the mayor.

This comes up because we have a pair of tree hearings today (Wed, May 2) related to the proposed removal of 37 trees from the Southern end of Somerville Ave, and also to some number of trees on Prospect Hill.

After the hearing last week about the Beacon Street trees, I found myself curious who was responsible for the decision to proceed in the face of the unanimous opposition of the people in the room as well as those who chose to write letters.

The answer is simple: If even one person objects in writing, “at or before the hearing,” then the decision to authorize the removal rests with the Mayor. The “selectmen” are an alternative structure of the executive branch used in some MA cities and towns.

That is why I am encouraging everyone with thoughts on the issue to write directly to our Mayor, in addition to the Tree Warden and the Arborist.

While those latter two are certainly involved and interested, it is not their decision. I continue to feel that it is disingenuous for the Mayor to send those two people to listen to our feedback when this is fundamentally his call.

Numbers

The community response to the proposed removal of the last few trees on Beacon Street has been gratifying and humbling. Thank you, everybody.

  • More than 1,400 unique devices have visited this website.
  • Dozens of people have CC’d me on their emails to the city.
  • Even more people have told me that they are making phone calls, including one 97 year old neighbor who I met at my Alderperson’s office hours!
  • The Ward 2 Democrats and the Union Square Neighborhood Council have sent messages.
  • At least one of our state representatives has written a very direct and personal note to the Mayor.

For all that, there has been no statement from the city even acknowledging us.

The 20+ of us who attended last week’s tree hearing have received no follow-up whatsoever from our Arborist, our Tree Warden, or the Director of Transportation and Infrastructure. It seems that, having fulfilled their legal obligation to provide notification, these people have turned their attention to other things.

In this stony silence, construction rolls on. Just yesterday, I watched a steamroller compacting the street soil adjacent to the largest and healthiest of the remaining trees.

Please continue to tell your friends and neighbors to call and email.

Unless Mayor Joe Curtatone acts, and soon, he will be responsible for the destruction of every single tree on Beacon Street.