Thoughts from the tree hearing

Last night’s tree hearing was an intense experience.

Three members of the city staff led the meeting. They were our city Arborist, our Tree Warden, and the Director of Transportation and Infrastructure. Around 20 members of the community showed up and made our voices heard. Our Alderman, JT Scott also attended. We started at 6pm, and the last of us finally left the training room in the police station two and a half hours later.

The meeting ran as more of an interactive discussion than a formal hearing. There was a lot of back and forth, with the community offering constructive alternatives and suggestions for how we might preserve some or all of the trees and prevent similar destruction in the future.

By a show of hands, every community member present was opposed to the removal of these last remaining trees. According to the city staff, this was also true for more than a dozen pieces of written testimony that were submitted online or in writing.

Death by curb cut

We learned that replacing the curb next to a mature tree is almost always a death sentence for that tree. Setting a new curb requires a trench to be excavated on either side. In this case that would mean digging almost all the way up to the base of the trunk. Also, the roots will usually have infiltrated the existing curb, meaning that removing it is very disruptive.

Community members suggested that the curb section closest to the tree could be left intact, and a “bump-out” added into the street. Indeed, the northern section of the street has dozens of these bump-outs, intended to ensure that cars do not park too close to intersections.

The city staff were equivocal, describing any changes as disruptive and potentially expensive.

Hot and expensive

One attendee, a local realtor, had performed an interesting financial analysis. In her words:

The Tree City USA Website state: "Properly placed trees can increase property values from 7–20%. Buildings in wooded areas rent more quickly, and tenants stay longer." While I never take these sorts of pronouncements as the Gospel, especially in r/e where everything is really a reflection of local conditions, let’s just work through these numbers for a moment.

I called the city assessing office this afternoon, and the assessor told me Somerville real estate, in total is about $13.5 billion. Eyeballing the somerville map, and drawing a few lines to make my own estimates of space, I’m going to guess that properties on Beacon Street, plus all the streets directly abutting Beacon Street, may equal about 5% of the value of housing stock in Somerville.

If you go with my very very rough estimate, then we are talking about a possible negative impact of between $47 million dollars and $130 million dollars.

One person in attendance had recently completed a scientific publication about the greater Boston region. He shared that, based on analysis of satellite imagery, Somerville is the most completely paved community out of our entire region. It is also the hottest, in many cases nearly 10 degrees hotter than surrounding communities.

Our requests

The unanimous request of all present was that the city should issue a change order on the project and find a way to alter the plans to save at least one of the existing trees.

We also asked the city to pursue penalties against the contractor, Newport Construction, for the inappropriate and possibly illegal way that 37 trees were removed last fall. My own opinion is that other contractors will be watching closely what happens with Newport Construction. If Somerville does nothing when a contractor blatantly ignores instructions from the city to stop work – that will become the new normal, the new standard operating procedure for construction throughout the city.

We asked bluntly: How was it that the city commissioned a plan that requires the sacrifice of every single tree on a major thoroughfare? How did more than two years pass without any notification to the community? Why did it take a “scheduling mistake” by the contractor to force the plans out into the open?

Another attendee summarized our requests well in an email to the Mayor this morning:

1) All RFP's involving sidewalk work should include a stipulation that the contractor will work around trees.
2) The City should not allow companies to work here that can not respond to citizens' clearly stated concerns. We're getting tired of hearing how difficult keeping trees would be for the contractor. They don't live here!
3) The city should not cut down healthy trees. City owned trees should be cared for and protected. Especially at our end of the city, there is far too little green of any kind.
4) Neighbors should be included in the process BEFORE it is too late to make changes.

Another way is needed

Unfortunately, the city staff present were unwilling to commit to even proposing any changes, much less advocating for them. It was clear to many of us in the room that the conclusion had been foreordained. The meeting was, in all likelihood held primarily to satisfy a legal requirement rather than to engage with the wishes of the community.

As I said in my own email to the Mayor this morning:

The city staff at the meeting did a good job as far as they were able. Unfortunately, they clearly did not have the authority to recommend changes. This made for a long and uncomfortable meeting, since they could do nothing but listen, sympathize, and justify.

It is disingenuous and unfair to claim that the clear-cut is based on their recommendation. It makes the entire hearing process something of a sham, a useless bit of window dressing. They clearly had no choice in the matter. This is not a recommendation that they are making.

This is doubly true for our city arborist, Dr. Boukili. It is deeply unfair to place her in a position where her only possible recommendation, over unanimous public outrage and opposition, is to finish removing all of the trees on a major boulevard.

It was an uncomfortable meeting, sir, because the staff you sent were not empowered to work with us. They did a good job in a bad situation, but they deserve better from you.

The decision to clear cut the street was made in secrecy nearly three years ago. It was concealed from the community, from the Aldermen, and from most of the city staff until last fall.

This decision - to remove every single tree on a major thoroughfare - this decision rests with you.

I am asking you to engage with us, either to own that decision yourself or else to offer your support and help your staff to work with us to find a way to save even one of these trees.

2 Replies to “Thoughts from the tree hearing”

  1. I was recently in the Fresh Pond neighborhood in Cambridge where sidewalks have been replaced, but there are modifications around the trees — namely an interruption in the cement and permeable material over the tree roots. It feels very good walking over the permeable surface because it is softer than the concrete. I’ll try to post a photo soon.

  2. Thank you again for setting this up, Chris, and for so carefully following this issue. With so much going on in Somerville, it has gotten hard to follow all the threads. This summarizes it well.

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