If you are in any doubt how much Newton mayor Setti Warren favors the interests of developers over residents and taxpayers, consider what has happened at 255 Cherry Street.
Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 87 protects public shade trees by requiring a hearing before any public shade tree (not deemed unhealthy or hazardous by the Tree Warden) can be removed. If any written objection is received at or before the hearing, the tree cannot be removed unless approved by the mayor (for cities) or selectmen (for towns).
On June 8, I wrote this objection to the removal of a healthy, attractive pear tree at 255 Cherry St. The request was, as I noted, an unfortunate return to a practice that used to be common some years ago, but which we hadn’t seen in a few years, of developers designing houses and building driveways and garages behind street trees as if they weren’t there, and then asking for permission to remove the tree. This is either extreme stupidity, or a cynical, intentional strategy to increase their chances of getting the tree removed by by building first and seeking forgiveness later. I’m going with cynical.
Clearly this developer knew the tree was there. His company, M-7 Realty LLC, acquired the property on December 5, 2015 for $625,000. A demolition permit on the existing house, which had been unanimously voted preferably preserved by the Historical Commission, was issued on January 22, 2016, on the very day the one-year demolition delay expired. The plans he submitted, and which Inspectional Services approved, show a double wide driveway narrowing to the then-existing curb cut, preserving the tree. Nevertheless, with the new house built, he applied to have the tree removed, and the tree was posted for a June 10 hearing.
Mine was not the only objection; at the June Urban Tree Commission meeting we were told there were nine objections.
I felt strongly about preserving this tree, as it was healthy, with a full canopy (being on the side of the street without overhead wires, and therefore not butchered by utility pruning), a pear, not a Norway maple, therefore adding species diversity, and it was on a busy street so a lot of people got to see it. And Cherry Street has been losing many trees which have died from old age, storm or other damage, making it even more important to preserve the remaining healthy trees. (By contrast, I did not object to a similar removal request the same month on Palmer Road in Waban. It was a Norway maple, with diminished canopy due to utility pruning, and on an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac, and I thought in that case the city was better off taking the replacement trees which would be required.)
The mayor had to know there was at least one objection, otherwise he wouldn’t have been getting an appeal. Did he not bother to read the objections, or read them and ignore them? I don’t know. What argument did the developer make to persuade the mayor? (I’m trying to find out.) That his original layout would be inconvenient for the ultimate buyer? (So why’d he design it that way?) That it would somehow be unsafe? (Same question, and why did Inspectional Services issue a building permit?)
Now, instead of an attractive, healthy tree and all its benefits of pedestrian shade, storm water retention, heat island reduction, and bird habitat, we have an unobstructed view of an ugly double garage door and double wide driveway. And we have another signal to developers that they can get away with anything. Is it surprising that so many people think people at City Hall are getting paid off?
That’s on top of losing losing a circa 1900 house, which the Historical Commission thought worth preserving. That house was relatively affordable for Newton (the prior purchaser, SZ Realty Trust, paid $540,000 in January 2015 before flipping it to M-7 Realty 11 months later for $85,000 more). Living area (excluding garages) has more than doubled, from 1,598 sq.ft to 3,792 sq.ft., so expect a selling price well over $1 million.
I am happy that Ted Hess-Mahan is planning to docket an item to require notification of city councilors when a tree in their ward is the subject of a removal request, and that Alison Leary plans to co-sponsor it. However, I’m not sure the mayor will show any more regard for objections by councilors than to those of mere residents. A better check and balance would be to go a step beyond notification, and modify the city’s Public Tree Ordinance to require approval by both the city council and the mayor before an objections to a tree removal could be overridden.
What else can we do to protect trees from being casualties of development, whether it’s public trees approved for removal like this example, private trees being clearcut, or both public and private trees being damaged in the course of construction?