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.