Letter from December, 2017

I submitted this letter to the Board of Aldermen and to the Mayor in early December. Unfortunately, it did not make it into the public record.

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to express my disappointment and concern, and to demand accountability, over the way that both the city and Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DoT) are handling the removal of dozens of trees by their contractor, Newport Construction (Newport), from Beacon Street in Somerville on the morning of October 6.

The City’s Conclusion
According to a communication from the city on October 26:

  • The removal of the trees was planned as part of the Beacon Street reconstruction.
  • An error on the part of a subcontractor (Newport) prevented the city from providing its customary notice to residents and abutters.
  • Newport has been given a pair of negative performance evaluations by MassDot, which may impact their competitiveness in bidding on future work with MassDoT
  • No separate hearing would have been held about these trees in any event, since they were removed as part of a capital project.

I am unsatisfied with this conclusion.

I believe that Newport is in violation of its contract on several points related to tree protection and removal. I believe that the city is in violation of its own ordinances and practice on this matter.

I am writing to urge the city, the Mayor, and MassDoT to take all possible steps to make this sort of vandalism and negligence prohibitively expensive for future contractors and city staff in the future.

What we were told

At the time that the trees were removed, many project documents were missing from the city website. Specifically, the finalized plans from 2015 were unavailable. The latest documents available were “75%” plans and hearing notes dating from 2014. While the final plans, dating from 2015, have subsequently been made available, there are no notes or even dates that public hearings might have been held related to those plans.

Bluntly, the last time that the public was given detailed information on the plans was more than three years ago, in June of 2014. At that time, MassDoT’s response to the question of tree removal was specific and unambiguous:

… through the project, we are going to add approximately two hundred new trees, plus we are going to retain many of the existing trees. We are taking down approximately eight trees of twelve inch to fourteen inch caliper and up, and then, we have a total of twenty-two trees that are being taken down for various reasons. They have been looked at by an arborist in advance.

A major change from the 75% to the 100% plans (dated June of 2015) is that only a single tree (at the Northeast corner of Park and Beacon) is marked to be “preserved and protected.” This is a stark contrast to earlier statements.

In early October, I made a request to MassDoT for all publicly available documents related to the project. After repeated requests, MassDoT determined that their website for submitting requests was nonfunctional. Shortly thereafter, I received a CD-ROM in the mail containing many contract documents and drawings.

Contract specifications for the project were issued on November 3, 2015. In that document, item 103, on page A00802-4 specifies the GPS coordinates of 30 specific trees and two stumps that are to be removed.

In the contract award documents, issued January of 2016, Newport’s bid includes exactly 30 trees to be removed, at a cost of $1,000 per tree, including stump grinding and removal of wood chips.

Item 102.51 is specific about the manner in which the contractor is to care for and preserve both the street trees and also any trees that might be affected by construction (those whose drip lines extend into the construction area). The contractor is to water any affected tree twice per week, to wrap exposed roots in moistened burlap, and so on.

These are the last documents available through either the city or MassDot.

Accountability and payment

To my knowledge, during the course of this project, none of this care has been taken. I challenge the city, MassDot, and Newport construction to provide any evidence to the contrary.

On the morning of October 6, Newport removed 37 trees without warning or notice. This was a coordinated action, started at first light, with multiple crews working to ensure that the maximum number of trees would be removed before the community could protest.

I honestly do not know how many more trees were removed as part of the project, prior to that morning. I challenge the city, the Mayor, and MassDoT to provide that number, along with evidence that it is accurate. I further challenge them to provide the required joint justification from the city’s Tree Warden and the Project Engineer that these removals were justified.

Per item 102.51 in the contract (“Basis of Payment”), that report is required before the contractor may be paid for removing our trees.

Conclusion

There are terms in the contract related to the contractor’s responsibilities if a tree is damaged during the project, I honestly do not think that they will matter at this point. The gross negligence and lack of accountability in this process is shared between the City and MassDot. In my opinion, Newport is only operating as they have come to expect.

I challenge the City and MassDoT to prove me wrong.

Sincerely,
Chris Dwan
Resident, Ward 2, Somerville