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.