Beacon Street Tree Removal FAQ

This is a list of frequently asked questions and answers about what happened to the trees of Beacon Street.

It was created as a resource for a hearing that was held on Monday April 23, 2018. The hearing was to discuss the planned removal of the last six trees left alive on the street.

If you have a question that is not addressed here, or if you find an error or omission that needs to be corrected, please email the author directly at chris@dwan.org.

What happened? What’s the fuss about?

Beacon Street is in the middle of a “full depth reconstruction,” project. Work started in spring of 2016 and is expected to be complete in fall of 2018. The main goal was to replace a 100+ year old wooden sewer system and to modernize the street with new curbs, protected bike lanes, and other features.

On October 6, 2017, multiple crews arrived early in the morning and began to cut down the trees. This was done without advance notification or signage, without parking control or a police detail, without protection or guidance for pedestrians, and without any onsite supervision from either the city or from MassDOT. The city had, in fact, just notified residents that major work was complete for the year.

Surprised residents immediately started calling 311, their Aldermen, and whoever they knew within the city. By late afternoon the contractor had called off the work.

When the dust settled, only six living trees remained standing on the street. At least 37 trees were removed that day. Several of those left standing had been rather accidentally protected by the cars left parked on the street that morning.

How did this happen?

It has been described as a scheduling error.

The contractor, Newport Construction, has said that they scheduled the work with a subcontractor, Northern Tree, prior to a bi-weekly coordination meeting with MassDOT and the city. When Newport presented their plan to cut the trees, they were told to cancel the work and hold off until the Spring.

Newport failed to call off their subcontractor after that meeting.

Has anyone been held accountable for the error?

No.

The contractor, Newport Construction, has received two negative performance reviews from MassDOT. These reviews are supposed to be taken into account in evaluating performance on future bids.

What changes have been made to prevent similar mistakes in the future?

The city has increased the frequency of coordination meetings from every two weeks to every week. The city has also opened up several new staff positions in a “mid-year appropriation.” Some of these people will provide supervision and outreach around future construction projects.

Were the trees planned for removal anyway?

Yes.

The final construction plans issued in 2015 indicate that almost every street tree is to be cut down.

If it was in the plan, then why are people so surprised?

The last significant update to the community prior to the clear cut was held in 2014, more than three years prior. That meeting was based on incomplete plans that showed only selected trees to be removed. At that meeting, community members asked about trees specifically and received the answer that many trees were to be spared.

The completed plans, issued in 2015, show the removal of the vast majority of the trees. Unfortunately, the city did not update the community about that change to the plans. The final plans were not available on the city’s website until after the clear-cut, in late October of 2017.

Based on confusion in the immediate aftermath of the cutting, it seems that few if any city staff (outside of those in the planning meeting mentioned above) were aware that a clear cut was the plan.

That seems like a big change, how did it get missed?

In construction bids, only trees above a certain size (9″ diameter or larger) are specifically called out by location. The smaller trees are lumped together as “general excavation.” This meant that the bidding document only listed 30 specific trees to be removed, despite changes in the detailed plans to remove almost every tree on the street.

City staff have also repeatedly mentioned that they are understaffed to provide the appropriate level of oversight for the amount of construction going on in the city.

What motivated the decision to cut down all the trees?

I don’t know.

At the hearing on April 23rd, 2018, the justification for removing the trees focused on the fact that removing and replacing the curb adjacent to a mature tree will usually undermine the tree and damage it quite badly.

I have seen major projects in which the construction chooses to route around at least the biggest and healthiest trees. In this case, the planners chose to clear-cut the street rather than to preserve even one tree.

I do not know why the city approved a plan that was incompatible with preserving even one tree.

Does this have anything to do with that invasive insect, the Emerald Ash Boring Beetle?

No.

In mid 2016, to prevent the spread of an invasive insect, Somerville announced a plan to remove approximately 100 ash trees. The plan was to cut down the sick trees, and to treat approximately 750 healthy ash trees with an organic pesticide.

A small number of trees along Beacon Street would have been affected.

As of April 2017, no trees have been removed as part of that program.

Were the trees removed to make way for the bike lanes?

No.

The design engineer and the city staff have been very clear about this on several occasions. The bike lanes and loss of parking have been contentious, but they were not the justification for cutting down all the trees.

Did we consider burying the power lines?

Not really.

Burying the power lines came up repeatedly in community meetings, especially since Somerville and Highland Ave had their power lines buried during reconstruction work. Each time, it has been dismissed as “too expensive,” though to my knowledge no actual estimates or options were ever provided.

How many trees are we talking about here?

The construction plans show approximately 100 “pre-existing” trees. Of those, 7 remain. One of those 7 was already dead on October 6.

Doesn’t the city require tree hearings?

Indeed we do. Sometimes people make fun of Somerville for our passionate tree hearings.

In this case, the required hearings were not held.

Does that mean that a lot of other trees were cut without hearings too?

Yes.

About 90 trees have been cut down so far under this project. No hearings have been held about any of them.

The city officials responsible have not even been able to produce a list of the trees that have been cut down as part of this project, despite repeated requests and a petition.

Were any laws broken?

Maybe.

At the time that the trees were cut, the city statute on tree removal included an exemption for “capital” projects. The idea is that projects of this scale have hearings and notifications all at once, so that they do not have to stop and start once construction gets going.

That ordinance has been updated to make it clear that notification is still required, even though capital projects will follow a different process for public hearings.

It is possible that two trees were incorrectly removed at some point during the project. The city is investigating whether we might have an ability to recoup monetary damages from Newport for destroying those trees without authorization.

When the state is paying for a project, do the contractors still have to obey city laws?

Yes.

The city’s laws and policies still apply, even when the work is done by contractors and paid for by the state.

Are they planting new trees?

Yes.

The plans call for approximately 200 new trees to be planted to replace the approximately 100 that were lost. We expect those to go in this year. These trees will be quite small, between 2 and 3 inches in diameter.

200 new trees is more than the 100 that were cut. What’s the big deal?

Trees grow slowly.

Cutting down every tree on Beacon means that there will be no mature trees on the street for more than 20 years.

The trees that were removed were as large as 24″. There was also a 36″ tree which died during construction and had to be removed for safety reasons.

Depending on the species, it takes between 2 and 6 years for a tree to add an inch of diameter. That means that a 9″ diameter tree (large enough to be listed in a contract) is between 18 and 36 years old. A 24″ diameter tree is probably 50 to 100 years old, though the measurement gets less accurate with age.

It will be at least 2040 before we see trees of any significant size on Beacon Street.

Looking at similar plantings from the last decade (Somerville and Highland Avenues), the trees are still obviously immature, and have experienced a high rate of sickness and death.

What kind of trees are to be planted

It’s in flux.

Our city arborist was hired in 2016, and is currently reviewing the proposed species of tree to be planted. She is recommending changes to the tree mix to account for growth and environment, especially since these trees will have to live under power lines.

It is not clear whether our arborist’s proposed changes will be incorporated into the actual plan.

Where do we stand today?

The remaining six trees are scheduled to be cut down early this spring.

A hearing about this removal is scheduled for Monday April 23, at 6pm in the Public Safety Building on Washington Ave in Somerville.

What is the point of a hearing? Can the plans change?

It is possible for the city to issue a change order on the project based on input from the community. They could instruct the contractor to protect the six trees that remain, and could commission updated plans to guide construction around rather than through them.

This would be expensive and disruptive, not least because we would be in a sole-source situation with the contractor.

Are some of the remaining trees more important to the community than others?

It depends who you ask.

The author’s opinion is that we should have had that conversation over the last two and a half years, while we still had some trees to choose from. Now that we’re down to the last six, I believe that we should keep them all.

Who, from the city, is involved?

  • Steve MacEachern (smaceachern@somervillema.gov) is our Tree Warden. He works in the Highway Department, which is part of the Department of Public Works. The job of the tree warden is to work with the engineers and construction teams to evaluate the health of the trees and to make recommendations about which of them might be prioritized.
  • Brad Rawson (brawson@somervillema.gov) is the Director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development (OSPCD). His department is responsible for overseeing the project on behalf of the city.
  • Vanessa Boukili (vboukili@somervillema.gov) is our city’s arborist. She is responsible for Urban Forestry (part of OSPCD). Urban Forestry is tasked to help the city develop a strategy and plan to preserve and expand our tree canopy, city-wide.
  • JT Scott (jtscott@somervillema.gov) is the Ward 2 Alderman.
  • Joe Curtatone (mayor@somervillema.gov) is the Mayor of Somerville. One of his signature achievements as mayor was achieving Somerville’s designation as a “tree city.”

How can I get more information about all of this?

The city has resources online on its page about the project.

The most recent detailed discussion of this issue happened in the Public Utilities and Public Works committee meeting on April 2..

There is also video of that meeting online. I attended the meeting, and most of these answers written here were covered there. If you would like to watch some of the people mentioned above offer answers in their own words, it happens at the beginning of the meeting.

You are also welcome (and encouraged) to email me at chris@dwan.org.

What is the call to action? Why do you hope that the reader will do?

If you have opinions on the pending tree removal, please write an email to trees@somervillema.gov and express them. CC’ing the officials listed above will help to raise visibility. I would also appreciate being CC’d, so that I can keep track of interest.

I also encourage you to take a hard look at the planning documents for upcoming construction in your neighborhoods. My experience through all of this is that it is very much up to the residents to inform ourselves and to double check any claims that are made at informational meetings.

I wish that I had gotten involved, curious, and active before they cut down all the trees on my street.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading.

3 Replies to “Beacon Street Tree Removal FAQ”

  1. Really grateful for this. Every person I tell about the Beacon Tree Removal asks, “WHY?!” so glad to be able to send them this!

  2. Thank you so much for this information, and the time you’ve taken to create this website. As a resident of Cambridge who is a frequent pedestrian along Beacon, I was devastated to see what had happened to all those trees:(

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