SOUTH ST. AREA—Two more large trees are coming down at a Custer Street development site, where the earlier cutting of at least a half-dozen mature trees last month sparked neighborhood controversy.
“I’m all for saving trees, and saving as many as we can. It just wasn’t feasible,” said Patrick McKenna, co-owner of the 22-24 Custer St. site, in a Gazette interview. He explained that one tree was dead and others had root systems that would have been damaged by excavation for a new residential building.
Anaye Milligan, a Jamaica Plain resident who sold the property to McKenna and partner Joseph Taylor last month and originally proposed the housing development, told the Gazette that his plan called for removing only one tree.
“The design was to preserve as many trees as possible,” Milligan said, adding that he was not involved in McKenna’s tree-cutting decisions and did not know the reasoning behind them. “I didn’t have anything to do with cutting down trees.”
Among the unhappy local residents is Melissa Moore, co-coordinator of the tree-preservation group JP Trees, which formed last year in response to housing developers cutting down trees.
“This [type of project] is one of the reasons why we formed last year—all the rash cuttings that have been going on,” Moore said.
McKenna is renovating and slightly expanding an existing two-family house on the site, and also constructing a new three-family building on a large rear lot that was formerly wooded.
As the Gazette previously reported, McKenna cut down about six large trees—one at least three feet in circumference—on the back lot last month.
Now, McKenna said, two other large trees along the property line near the front of the street are also coming down. No large trees will remain. McKenna said new, but smaller, trees will be planted as part of the final landscaping.
Milligan proposed the development last year and received zoning variances early this year. However, he said, he found the approval process “expensive and exhausting.” Last month, he sold the property and the approved project to McKenna and Taylor.
“[Milligan] was really good and really proactive in getting the neighbors involved,” said a local resident who wanted to remain anonymous in this article. Milligan held meetings with neighbors, the resident said, and received some community support.
Moore said tree preservation was an issue that came up early in the discussions. Milligan said he intended only to cut down a large tree in the center of the back lot and preserve the others, which sat along the edge of the property.
“One, I like trees,” Milligan said. “Two, I think it actually enhances the property significantly.” He noted that trees provide shade, aesthetic value and visual screening—including from the massive brick wall of the St. Thomas Aquinas Church school building behind the property.
Milligan added that a professional arborist told him that some of the trees were unhealthy. He said that McKenna could have found new issues that required the removal of trees.
“The roots were going into the foundation,” McKenna said of the trees on the back lot, where excavation has begun, adding the work would have damaged them anyway.
As for the other trees, “One on the side [of the lot] was completely rotten—a hazard,” McKenna said. “One was completely rotten, so we decided to take both of them out.”
“I pointed out that all the leaves on it are green,” Moore said of the reportedly rotten tree, referring to an on-site conversation she had last month with Taylor.
The Gazette observed what appeared to be dead heartwood in a large limb cut off of one of those side trees, though the wood was not from the main trunk.
Moore said that Taylor told her the main reason for removing the side trees was making way for a new driveway. McKenna said a driveway was not the motivation.
McKenna said he wants to be “cooperative” with neighborhood concerns. Residents say he has not done the outreach Milligan did, and they were surprised by the unannounced tree-cuttings. Milligan said some residents complained to him.
“It’s nice to have some greenery,” said the anonymous resident. “It’s too bad to see them taking down as much as they are.”
McKenna said the city issued a stop-work order recently because of the removal of asbestos tiles from the exterior of the existing house without specially licensed contractors. Asbestos professionals resumed the work last week.
In approving the zoning variances for the development, the city’s zoning Board of Appeal decision said, “This proposal would not result in any substantial changes to the property from the perspective of any of the abutting property owners nor would it create a nuisance to abutters or to others in the neighborhood.”
Of course, the tree-cutting is a substantial change from the perspective of neighbors. But the zoning code does not address tree removal at all. No permit or approval is required for cutting trees on private property.
JP Trees is working to formulate some kind of law or ordinance that would provide some tree-preservation oversight similar to those in other cities. The organization still has no specific proposal. But the general ideas include placing tree-removal in the zoning code and/or establishing a kind of tree landmarking process that would protect trees above a certain size.
Right now, Moore said, JP Trees is just trying to get political support for the general idea of tree preservation, particularly in the context of development projects.
If tree-cutting continues on a large scale, she said, JP will look like another type of forest—“a jungle of concrete.”