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.”

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.

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.

May 2: Tree Hearings for Union Square and Prospect Hill

This coming Wednesday there are two back-to-back tree hearings at the Public Safety building at 220 Washington, starting at 5:30pm.

The situation in Union Square and Prospect Hill is very different from what we experienced on Beacon Street. These plans are online well in advance of the work to be done and community outreach is happening prior to the removal of any trees. In addition, the plans do not call for a clear cut of an entire street, which makes it much easier to have a conversation about why some particular trees needed to be sacrificed while sparing others.

On Beacon Street, by the time we had a “hearing,” 90+ out of 100 of our trees were already gone. At the hearing we were told that it was too late to make any substantial changes to the plans.

While these two projects are certainly much better than a surprise clear-cut, I encourage everyone with the time and the energy to familiarize yourself with the proposals and to attend the meetings if you can.

Plans and presentations for the work in Union Square.

  • 37 trees will be removed. They range from 3″ up to 18″ in diameter. A total of 362 “tree inches” (a rough measure of biomass and maturity) will be removed.
  • 15 of the removals are listed as being in poor health. The others conflict with aspects of the plan.
  • 40 trees will be retained.
  • 51 new trees will be planted. Assuming that these new trees are the 2″ saplings that are standard for Somerville plantings, this will be a total of 102 inches of diameter, a loss of 260 “tree inches.”
  • Assuming that trees take between 2 and 4 years to add an inch of diameter, those 51 trees will need to grow for between 10 and 20 years to make up the biomass that is being lost.
  • Based on the experience on Somerville Ave, we can expect many of these plantings to die in their first few years of life.
  • The artists renderings in the slides show trees that are at least 10 years old.

Plans for the Prospect Hill removal

  • 43 trees will be removed, many of which seem to be in poor health or dead already.
  • 47 trees will be retained.
  • These plans are much less detailed about what trees will be planted, and where.
  • The photographs of the species to be planted show spectacular trees that are at least 60 years old.

Scarves for trees

People (myself included) are hanging scarves and other decorations on the trees to show support and to draw attention to this issue.

This is a great way to raise visibility in a non-confrontational and beautiful way. The white silk scarves on the tree at 85 Beacon are a match for its blossoms and a powerful contrast to the mud and dirt of the construction.

If you choose to do this, please make sure to use non-toxic materials that you do not mind losing.

I received wonderful news yesterday:

The Ward 2 Democrats of Somerville have decided to formally support our request that the Mayor issue a change order to the Beacon Street project and retain at least one of the existing trees. I have been CC’d on dozens of emails to the Mayor and to the Board of Aldermen – and have spoken with many people who are unanimous in their support for the idea.

Despite all this, the city has not issued any sort of formal statement, has not stopped work, and so far as I know – has not commissioned any changes to the project plans. After the mistakes made throughout the project and the violent and disruptive clear-cut of last fall, saving even one tree would be an important gesture that community input matters.

The decision to clear cut Beacon Street rests with Mayor Joe Curtatone. He still has the opportunity to change course.

This is the time to begin to restore trust between the city and our neighborhood. I truly hope that our Mayor makes the right decision.

Neighborhoods Supporting Each Other

Last night, I had the opportunity to speak to the Union Square Neighborhood Council . I am deeply grateful and humbled that, having heard the story of the trees on Beacon Street, they have sent a letter to the Mayor and to the Board of Alderpeople, formally supporting our efforts to retain some of the mature trees along Beacon Street.

To the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen of the City of Somerville,

We are writing to in support of our neighbors who have put so much effort, energy, and emotion into saving the remaining trees on Beacon Street. We share their frustration with the community "process" around the removal of these trees, which seems to mirror so many processes in this city — an opportunity for city officials to listen without altering plans in any meaningful way based on public comment.

Note that mature trees are far more valuable than saplings, and it takes 20-40 years for a tree to provide the sheltering shade and ecosystem services that we rely on to keep our city livable. Though Somerville is a "tree city" according to the Arbor Day Foundation, recent events belie this designation's veracity.

We agree with our neighbors that that the rubber-stamp hearing for the last six trees on the street is a perfunctory afterthought to the unauthorized and unscheduled removal of 37 trees last October. It is a thin veneer of process for the final six out of nearly 100 trees sacrificed since work began in 2016.

This is a critical opportunity for the city to begin to rebuild trust with residents. We are asking you to act in the interest of the residents and the city itself, despite the fact that it may delay and additional expense.

We are asking you to preserve the remaining healthy trees.

There is another tree hearing scheduled for this coming Wed, May 2 – this one related to the removal of 37 mature trees along the southern end of Somerville Street. I encourage everyone who is interested in understanding and potentially improving this process to attend, to listen, and to be involved as early in the process as possible.

This public response is having an impact.

Direct phone calls to the Mayor’s office, combined with emails to both the Mayor and to the Board of Aldermen have changed the narrative. I learned yesterday that the construction crews have been instructed to hold off on both tree and curb removal until the city has had a chance to review the situation.

Please continue to share this page with your neighbors and to email and call. It is making a difference.

Growing Community

In its first week online, this website has served nearly 900 unique visitors. That’s both surprising and gratifying. I hope that folks are finding it useful and informative.

We’ve created a mailing list: beacon-neighbors@googlegroups.com. If you would like to be included in updates and discussions, please write to the group or just to me at chris@dwan.org.

I hope that this website and the mailing list will outlive the current stress about the trees and will become a useful resource for our part of the Somerville community. Beacon Street, particularly towards the North end where it intersects Somerville Ave, is not as well organized and recognized as other neighborhoods of the city. We’re close to Lincoln Park, to Inman Square, to Union Square, and to Porter Square, but Beacon really is a neighborhood all its own.

Neighbors and Friends

To that end, we have started making connections with those other neighborhood groups. A member of the Union Square Neighborhood Council (USNC) has chosen to amplify and support our message about the trees. They have their own clear-cut coming down the road. On May 2, there is a hearing to discuss the removal of 37 mature trees along southern Somerville Ave. While the warning and documentation is much better for those trees, the planning and hearing process remains problematic.

The writeup on the USNC website is quite evenhanded, and links back to several of the letters and updates that this community has shared.

From that website:

Whether or not you feel that there is some possible value or even importance in preserving the existing trees along Somerville Avenue, I hope you would agree that the process being used to consider the matter is fairly flawed (as is expressed in the letters linked from my report page), and thus deserves more serious consideration than what it is presently being given.

I encourage everyone reading this to attend and participate in the hearing about the trees of southern Somerville Avenue. As with the hearing about Beacon Street, it seems to be me to be a window dressing and a formality rather than an honest attempt to take the community’s feedback into account.

To play with the words, it is a “telling” rather than a “hearing.”

Keep up the pressure

I received some feedback from one of the Alderpeople that it helps them when we send emails to the entire board rather than just to a subset. This is because they are forbidden, under the Open Meeting Laws, from doing any deliberation or discussion outside of the public meetings.

Please do stay involved and continue to reach out to the Mayor mayor@somervillema.gov and to our Aldermen boardofaldermen@somervillema.gov. I encourage you also to include both trees@somervillema.gov and brawson@somervillema.gov on your notes.

If you choose, I would also appreciate a CC at chris@dwan.org. I’ve been CC’d on dozens of messages – and I’m overwhelmed by how articulate and passionate our community can be. Thank you.

My requests today

I will be sending a new letter to all of those people this morning.

  • The city should issue a change order to save at least one tree. This has great symbolic importance for us, that our voices made a difference. It will cost money and cause delay, but after nearly three years of what everybody agrees was a terrible and flawed process, it is important to get this bit right, here at the end.
  • The tree hearing and planning process is flawed: By the time the community is asked for input, we are told it is too late to make changes. Plans are made in secret, and the hearings come too late to have an impact.
  • We need accountability for Newport Construction: Unless the contractor is held financially accountable for their actions last fall – this will be the new normal for construction across the city
  • This is the Mayor’s call: While the “recommendation” after the hearing supposedly rests with our Arborist, she was clearly not empowered to recommend anything other than proceed according to the plan. That means that this decision to clear cut Beacon Street, as well as the ability to make a change, rests with Joe Curtatone.

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.