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

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