JP Observer: Much-Needed Ordinance to Protect Our Tree Canopy Is on the Way

Hooray! Tree removal from private as well as public property may finally be regulated in Boston.

After an initial hearing into District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo’s “Ordinance Establishing Protections for the City of Boston Tree Canopy” on Aug. 24, work to review and edit the details and language to craft a final version now begins.

The ordinance went to the City Council Committee on Government Operations, originally cosponsored by District 9 City Councilor Liz Breadon, and now by 12 of the 13 City Councilors. (Councilor Kim Janey, acting mayor, was not listed as having signed on as of this writing.)

The ordinance comes purposely, Arroyo said in an interview earlier this month, at a time when an Urban Forest Plan (UFP) “for the protection and expansion of Boston’s urban forest” is being developed by the Parks and Recreation Department with a consultant team and a community advisory board. The UFP project will work in collaboration with designers of the final ordinance, Parks Commissioner Ryan Woods and Arroyo said at the hearing. Equity is a key goal of both efforts.

At a City Council hearing in 2018, local City Councilor and current Council President Matt O’Malley quoted a study that says every mature tree gives $293 worth of benefits to its surroundings every year.

In addition to adding beauty and value to a community, trees help reduce bad stuff like storm water run-off, heat island effects, respiratory ailments and energy usage.

Most important, trees take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen—a much-needed double service in combatting climate change.

Seven councilors, several administrators from the Environment, Energy and Open Space Department and members of the public noted those benefits in support of the ordinance throughout the hearing using words like “thank you,” “excited,” and “grateful.”

The Boston ordinance presented this week, like most, specifically deals with what are called “significant” trees in the city—both on public and private property. Significant trees are defined in Boston’s as non-invasive and 8 inches or more in diameter at chest level (4.5 feet).

A key provision is that no one would be able to remove a significant tree or trees from private property without first obtaining a permit from the Tree Warden. In most cases, before removal, the applicant would have to 1) show plans to replace existing trees with similar ones on or adjacent to the property or 2) pay the Boston Street Tree Fund an amount equal to the cost of purchasing, planting and maintaining similar trees.

Owner-occupants of 1-3 family houses would have an easier time. They could be granted a waiver of the requirement to replant trees or make a payment with no need for a hearing. If the owner moves or sells within 18 months of getting a waiver, though, it would be revoked.

A fine of $100 per day for every day until an application is filed would be levied against anyone who removes a significant tree without a permit.

The Boston ordinance adds to the responsibilities of the Tree Warden and creates of a Senior Urban Forestry and Landscape Planner position as well as an Urban Forestry Committee. It discusses public trees and many other details of regulations for protecting Boston’s tree canopy. For the full text of the ordinance presented, go to https://www.boston.gov/sites/default/files/file/2021/08/0858.PDF.

Tree advocates who testified brought up real concerns about developers rushing in to quickly cut down trees and the advocated some kind of moratorium on cutting down trees for development until a tree ordinance takes effect. A large group of advocates, including environmental activist Sarah Freeman of the Arborway Coalition and others from JP, signed a letter to all the City Councilors last week, calling for one.

Suggestions made by the public and the councilors and administrators at the hearing will be taken into consideration during the workshop phase, Arroyo pointed out several times.

The goal stated in Imagine Boston 2030, developed by former Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, is to increase Boston’s tree canopy to 35 percent. As of 2019, our canopy had held steady at about 27 percent for four or more years. Protecting existing trees will make the reasonable goal of 35 percent much easier to achieve.

“No one will be surprised to hear that I am very supportive of a tree ordinance,” Freeman said during her testimony. “The best time to enact it was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

She said that she sees not conflict between creating affordable housing and protecting trees. “A healthy community has both,” she said.

“No tree ordinance existed,” Arroyo said when I asked him why he drafted one for Boston in an interview earlier this month. He said when he learned Boston doesn’t regulate the removal of all trees, he was “surprised.”

He cited the heat waves here this summer and findings of a 2020 Tree Canopy Assessment by the City as specific reasons regulations need to be in place. The special aerial photography showed that Boston’s tree canopy remained relatively stable 2014-2019. More tree canopy was lost on residential land than any other type, he added.

The report also showed that the neighborhoods that suffered the most tree canopy losses were Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan and West Roxbury. Arroyo has represented parts of Hyde Park, Roslindale, Mattapan and Readville as District 5 City Councilor since he took office in 2019.

Arroyo noted that Cambridge, Lexington, Newton, Somerville and Wellesley have tree ordinances. He said he and his staff looked at tree removal regulations in other cities and states around the country, including Austin, Tex. and Rhode Island, before crafting the proposed ordinance.

They sometimes even interviewed officials there about what they thought worked well and what didn’t, Arroyo said. Atlanta, Palo Alto, and Portland, Ore. are just a few cities, in addition to Austin, that have had tree ordinances for quite a while. In some, the tree removal regulations are sprinkled among other about open space or development.

Speak for the Trees Executive Director David Meshoulam presented a list of requests for specific changes to the current ordinance during his testimony, and others who testified later said they supported them. Suggestions included “aligning” the ordinance with zoning and Boston Planning and Development Agency processes, “stricter enforcement,” adding heritage trees and historical trees to the “significant trees” category, making the smallest diameter of a significant tree 6 inches instead of 8, and more.

When plans were announced to develop acres of property behind my brother and sister-in-law’s house in Austin in 2016, they first worried about what would happen to the small forest portion behind their back yard. But they realized Austin had a tree ordinance that applied to such situations since at least 2011. Many mature trees were preserved on the land, and new trees were planted scattered among the 35 single-family houses and condos and a new street.

Councilors and administrators at the hearing agreed with Arroyo when he said he thought additional resources would be needed to carry out the tree protection ordinance. Calling the ordinance “urgent,” Chair of the Ways and Means Committee Kenzie Bok said she was hopeful that jobs money in the American Restoration Plan could be used. Many said the jobs money would ideally go to Bostonians.

The right spirit seems to be there. Now we just need the crafting of the final version of this mainly sensible ordinance to go smoothly and quickly and funding found. We’ve been without complete tree protections far too long already in Boston.

As Freeman said in an interview before the hearing, “Any city turning a blind eye to the fate of its trees is not doing its job.”Sandra Storey is the founder and former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette

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