The city continues to struggle with tree issues; Hearings on Planning Council papers open Monday


Above: Officials continue to discuss how to handle requests to remove healthy, dead public shade trees that cause other problems and whose lifespan may be questionable. (Images taken from the DPW notice.)

On Monday, the Planning Board will hold public hearings on two proposed items related to the preservation of viable trees along Southborough roads.

At recent meetings of the Planning Board and Select Board, officials discussed issues related to the recent vacancy of Tree Caretaker, needed process improvements, and short- and long-term planning. The good news is that both boards agreed that process improvements were needed. Yet there was still no consensus on the way forward for the City.

At the February 28 Planning meeting, some board members lobbied to defer the items to a fall town meeting. This would give boards more time to develop the long-term strategy. In the meantime, they would focus on fixing the short-term needs caused by the Tree Warden vacancy. After the select committee adjourned, planning decided not to delay. They have scheduled hearings to prepare the items for the annual municipal meeting on May 4.

Article on the scenic route

As I have already reported, city officials recently learned that most roads in Southborough were designated scenic drives at the city’s annual meeting in 1978. (That is, all roads which had been adopted in April, excluding state-controlled numbered roads.) The new Scenic Byways article would add to the list the 34 streets that have since been adopted as municipal roads.

The main benefit is that it would be easier for the city to adopt consistent policies for managing tree (and rock wall) removals. However, the process is stricter on scenic routes. This is seen as a plus for officials who believe trees need more protection. But for officials advocating for a more streamlined process for dealing with the dangers posed by trees, it’s a concern.

Tree By-law Section

The section of the Planning Board’s Tree By-law is intended to create a check and balance on the Department of Public Works process for tree removal. Planning Board members have suggested that the DPW has labeled trees too much of a hazard in the past to bypass hearings before removing them. Tension between planning and the DPW over improving the process led to the DPW’s tree guardian resigning that title earlier this winter.

The proposed section outlines the process of removing a public shade tree.* The bylaw defines removal as including actions likely to kill the tree:

the felling of any public shade tree and/or any other act likely to cause the death of such a tree within three years, including, but not limited to, improper or excessive pruning and construction, demolition and excavation activities.

The proposed sets of regulations define the qualifications and responsibilities of a tree caretaker. In most situations, a hearing would be required before removing a public shade tree 1.5 inches and over in diameter (at chest height). Depending on the location of the tree, the hearing may be joint with the Planning Board or the Conservation Commission. To approve the deletion, one of the following criteria must be met:

(a) The tree is dead, diseased, terminally injured, in danger of falling, dangerously close to existing structures, causing a utility outage, causing drainage or right-of-way issues, or posing a threat for pedestrian or vehicle safety;
(b) The tree interferes with structures, utilities, streets, sidewalks or proposed necessary improvements for which there is no alternative;
(c) There is no alternative to tree removal.

The settlement would allow the director to fell trees in an emergency without a hearing. But it sets standards for the circumstances and bases the determination on objective criteria.

You can find the most recent draft (and the Scenic Road draft) in the Planning Board packet for Monday’s meeting, here.

Current Issues/Process

There has been public debate over whether the city’s tree keeper should be an arborist. At the March 15 board meeting, DPW Superintendent Karen Galligan said that while the tree keeper should have knowledge of trees, hiring an arborist wouldn’t make sense.

She noted that the public will not trust an arborist who works for a tree-cutting company. And when trying to find someone to hire who doesn’t, he was offered a rate of $150 an hour. Galligan pointed out that some trees are so clearly dead that anyone looking at them (including residents and planning members) can see them irrelevant.

She felt that hiring an arborist only makes sense for trees of questionable status. She also thought it didn’t make sense to pay an arborist’s fee for someone to attend board meetings while waiting for a hearing.

On the other side of the issue, the DPW sometimes seeks to remove trees that are not dead, as they interfere with road safety. Galligan noted that in these cases, again, it is not necessary to have an arborist’s report.

Two trees at the intersection of Flagg and Deerfoot roads meet this last criterion. Galligan is looking to remove them as part of the intersection widening project based on a history of accidents involving large trucks.**

Galligan said a joint Planning Board and Tree Keeper safety hearing is needed to discuss the issue. Since the vacancy falls under the board, she told the board that he is currently the acting tree keeper. The select council has agreed to work on scheduling a joint hearing for these trees with Planning.

Galligan is also seeking a separate hearing with Planning, without involving the Select Board, for 26 trees that residents have requested removed. At the March 15 meeting, she described them as all clearly dead. However, she has since job the tree details and Pictures for the public (at the request of the Select Board.) While most seem to fit this narrative, a few do not.

examples of trees that residents have asked to be removed (cropped from photos released by DPW)Trees include those that residents have complained about as hazards due to their location and/or past limb loss. Yet the list also includes two greats who appear to be in good health. A resident of Oak Hill Road asked if it was possible to remove them to improve the lines of her driveway site for safety reasons.

In between is a couple that may fall into the category that board member Sam Stivers says gets the most public commentary. These are trees that are not completely dead, but an arborist can determine that they have a limited lifespan. (The issues in this case include potential termites, fungi, and branches that have fallen in the past.)

In the short term, Galligan hopes to be able to hire a retired Southborough resident who has worked successfully for them in the past. She said he would not be willing to write reports, but she hoped he would walk with her and the planner to examine the 26 trees and have DPW do the writing.

In the longer term, Galligan advocated that any arborist in the city be hired by the Planning Board, although the DPW would work with them. She told Council that residents do not believe reports of anyone hired by the DPW, even when the contractors are not connected to a tree removal service. She followed that if a contractor is hired by another ministry, it should not come out of their ministry’s budget.

*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.

**At the start of the March 15 meeting, during public comment, Flagg Road resident Debbie DeMuria told the board that the Flagg/Deerfoot intersection project should not move forward until the city will not have shared the results of the city’s global circulation study. The Special Fall Town Meeting approved a study to examine traffic patterns and large/heavy truck issues in Southboorugh. The Select Board has asked for data to help it decide on a request from residents of Flagg Road to request a truck exclusion on their route.

Some board members did not comment on this. The study’s last public update came in December, when city administrator Mark Purple said city consultants might not start work until the spring.

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