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

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.