As I mentioned before, the Planning Board has sought to improve the city’s decision-making process for removing public shade trees.* (The process also covers restricted approval for planting new trees in the public right-of-way.) Since I last wrote about their discussions with the Select Board and Public Works, there have been developments.
Temporarily renamed Tree Warden
The Select Board voted to temporarily reappoint the former Tree Warden. The director had resigned from his paid duties earlier this winter. The Select Committee is still unresolved on how to fill this position in the future. In the meantime, they learned that their council would be considered the guardian of the trees until a new person was hired/contracted.
But on March 24, chairwoman Lisa Braccio explained that the former director was ready to return to his role until June 30, perhaps longer if necessary. This is an interim agreement while the board considers next steps.
Temporary process to determine tree fellings
This week, Braccio updated that she and the Planning Board’s Meme Lutrell have come up with a “very simple” interim process for handling tree removal. A flowchart describes the process followed by the tree caretaker for requested removals of trees that do not constitute imminent danger.
The process is intended as an interim measure until a long-term process is agreed by the Selection and Planning Boards. This may take the form of a by-law that planning seeks to pass at the annual municipal meeting. (Scroll down for more.)
Hearings would be held for trees that are considered public shade trees. Hearings for trees on scenic drives will take place at Planning Board meetings (bimonthly). Hearings for trees on non-scenic routes would take place at board meetings.
During the discussion, Braccio clarified that the DPW does not need to wait for a hearing to deal with trees that pose a hazard. No details were provided on how this is determined.
Previous Planning Board discussions highlighted that the Tree Keeper had previously approved the removal of trees he had determined to be hazards which residents later said were not really hazards. This has been at the heart of much of the planning and public works disagreement over a tree-cutting process.
The select board approved the new “flowchart” of the process on Tuesday evening. Braccio expected Lutrell to present the process to the Planning Board at its next meeting. (Although, as of this morning, the agenda for their April 11 meeting made no reference to it.)
You can see the pdf of the painting here. (I’ve also inserted images of the Scenic Road and Non-Scenic Road processes below.)
Braccio also noted that April 25 is the tentative date for the Planning Board and Tree Guardian hearing on the removal of a tree at the intersection of Flagg and Deerfoot Roads. (Although, again, no agenda or notice of hearing was issued this morning.)
Planning Council Scenic Drives and Trees Regulations
The select council and advisory council expressed dismay that the planning board was unwilling to push its proposed tree bylaw to a special town meeting in the fall.
Board member Andrew Dennington and advisory chair Kathy Cook publicly feared the article would spark a lengthy debate, prolonging what already looked like a multi-night annual town hall meeting. (Cook noted that there are several citizen petition articles on the mandate.)
Planning Chairman Don Morris last week spoke about the public discussions, but said his council had not received a “formal” request to delay the article. He said he was “curious” why they would be asked to delay their article unless other non-financial articles were also asked to be delayed.
Resident Tim Litt said he heard officials call the article controversial and perceived as “not ready”. (He noted that this was not his view.)
Morris and member Marnie Hoolahan said the settlement was ready. Member Andrew Mills said people with concerns should voice them in their public hearings.
Lutrell said when she spoke to Cook, she learned the advisory chair mistakenly believed the regulations were a reaction to trees being cut down for St. Mark’s Pocket Park last fall. She explained that Planning had been working on the initiative for two years.
On Tuesday evening, two members of the select committee continued to refer to the article as not being ready.
Member Marty Healey said the article included several legally problematic elements, including a reference to a revolving tree fund that does not exist. City Administrator Mark Purple referenced a related section at the end of his post. It would amend other regulations to add the revolving fund. He said the city council informed Planning that they couldn’t do it that way. But he was unaware of the full back and forth between Planning and Counsel.
Healey also expressed discomfort with the “extraordinary power” the settlement would grant to a tree keeper – an unelected official. He felt that deferring to a fall municipal meeting would give the City time to get the right settlement. He was against rushing something at Town Meeting with the force of law and sanctions.
Dennington said that, as the articles stand, he would vote not to support the tree bylaw or the scenic drive bylaw. He disagreed with Planning’s view that all roads in the city should be scenic drives. For him, this undermined the whole concept of scenic drives.
Braccio reiterated that the Planning Board believes it is ready to proceed with the items for the Annual Municipal Meeting. She said they could try to have a conversation with them, but believed that would require a commitment from the select council that there will be a town meeting in the fall.
The board decided not to vote on its position on the bylaws until it had a chance to speak to the planning board. This could be at the April 12 select board meeting, or the select board can join the advisory committee when they hold a discussion with Planning on the subject.
You can read more information about the statutes here. I will note that in this story I have focused on the restrictions and process for removing public shade trees. I haven’t covered the restrictions on new planting which are also in the regulations.
Under jurisdiction, it states that the tree keeper must issue standards for tree planting which include “a list of trees acceptable for planting”. Later language makes it clear that only native species can be used for new public shade trees.
The following sections are found under “E. Planting New Trees in the Public Right-of-Way”:
(1) Any landowner may request the Tree Custodian to plant a tree in a public right-of-way. It is understood that some rights-of-way are not suitable for planting trees and that some species of trees are not suitable for public rights-of-way. For this reason, it is understood that the permit is discretionary on the part of the tree keeper and should not be interpreted as a right. . .
(2)(c) The petitioner shall work with the Tree Custodian to select an appropriate native species tree and location that will not interfere with buried or overhead utilities and minimize root damage to streets and sidewalks .
You can read updated drafts of Planning here. The wording above is not fully in line with current Commission policy job Street tree guidelines. The guidelines prefer native species but also allow certain “native cultivars”.
However, this is consistent with many Planning Board discussions with permit applicants over the past few years. Many applicants have been pushed to plant native species. At a recent hearing on the amendment of 154-156 Turnpike Road to a major site plan approval, Lutrell explained that the planting of native species was requested as part of the landscaping plan.
She noted that the project was supposed to be a low impact development. The native plantings were meant to help mitigate the destruction the project would cause. She tracked that native species have co-evolved with native pollinators. She referred to cultivars with berries that birds cannot eat. She said they were beautiful to look at but not helpful to the environment.
*The definition of a public shade tree includes those on or within 20 feet of the public right-of-way, except on state highways. It should be noted that, according to Planning Board Chairman Don Morris, the width/limit of the public right-of-way varies considerably on country roads. Although the DPW has road maps that show this, it is not something easily determined by the average resident.