The Planning Board hopes to bring two Articles to Annual Town Meeting related to protecting roadside trees. Last week, they discussed disagreements with a Town department that would be charged with executing revised policies. Since those employees report to a different board, Planning will seek to find common ground in time to proceed this spring.
The crux of the issue is that the Planning Board would like to add checks and balances to the tree removal process. But Department of Public Works, which is responsible for public trees, objects to some proposed checks. Arguments include that delays to removing “hazards” would increase liability for the Town. There also appears to be concern over adding to the DPW’s administrative workload.
The disagreement is complicated by the fact that Public Works reports to the Board of Selectmen, not Planning. Meanwhile, the Planning Board is responsible for tree removal hearings under certain circumstances.
Internal dialogue on the policy began in 2020 after residents complained about the removal of trees on the south end of Deerfoot Road without public notice. It included a 200 year old oak that neighbors believed had seemed healthy. Some questioned the arborists findings used to justify the removals. They asked the Board of Selectmen and the Planning Board to help prevent similar situations happening to other neighborhoods.
At that time, Planning Chair Don Morris noted that they had heard from furious residents in the past when trees were cut down that they believed were in good condition. Planning Member Meme Luttrell noted that the 2019 Tree bylaw was sponsored by their board to help the Town become a Tree City USA. She believed Planning should advocate for Shade Tree removal hearings.
Later that year, representatives from both boards* began discussions with the Department of Public Works about the tree removal policy and potential revisions. Work continued through 2021.
Under Mass General Law, a “consolidated hearing” is generally required before the Planning Board and Tree Warden to remove trees within a public way or on the boundaries. But there are exceptions. The most broad reaching one is:
Nothing contained in this chapter shall prevent the trimming, cutting or removal of any tree which endangers persons traveling on a highway
Public Works had been avoiding hearings based on arborists’ descriptions of trees as dying or damaged/unstable.
The Tree Warden also has the authority to remove trees without hearings from most roads if it is less than 1½” in diameter or to allow “widening the highway”. There is an exception to that last exception. On scenic roads:
any repair, maintenance, reconstruction, or paving work done with respect thereto shall not involve or include the cutting or removal of trees. . . except with the prior written consent of the planning board. . .after a public hearing
For decisions related to trees and stonewalls on those scenic roads adopted in the 70’s, Town Meeting instructed the Planning Board to consider “sound planning principals, aesthetics, and preservation of natural resources as well as public safety”. A 1978 bylaw adopted all “existing” Town owned roads in Southborough as scenic roads.** Luttrell is working to draft a bylaw adding roads built since.
Discussions in 2020 included getting legal opinions on the process under state law. In a September 2020 Planning meeting, Luttrell shared Town Counsel’s opinion that Southborough could adopt a policy beyond the state’s, calling for more Planning Board involved hearings.
Over the past couple of years, Public Works and the DPW have held tree removal hearings. (The process was treated differently for trees that officials believed were on non-scenic roads than those on scenic roads.)
Planning advocated for holding consolidated hearings in front of the Planning Board, rather than a split process. Apparently concerned that the DPW might not always adhere to a Planning policy, Luttrell began work on a bylaw to codify the process.
Last week, Town Planner Karina Quinn outlined some of Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan’s objections to the draft bylaw. She was concerned about hearings holding up the DPW’s ability to remove dead trees they consider a hazard. Quinn noted that some others have conflicting opinions on whether some identified trees were really “imminent” dangers.
Quinn also noted that the utilities are legally allowed to trim shade trees that are hazardous to power lines. That sometimes means under Tree Warden supervision, the utility removes the tops, leaving 10 foot tall stumps. Since the trees are now “dead”, DPW no longer needs a hearing to have them removed.
Quin said that Galligan said she would be willing to shift all tree responsibilities, including the Tree Warden position, to the Planning Board.
Morris opined that actual tree removals belong under the DPW and some administrative process for public input should belong to Planning. He believed that they should be able to come to an agreement on what falls on each side of the line.
Luttrell claimed that in prior conversations with selectmen and Public Works, Galligan had agreed to the proposed process, then later reversed her opinion. She noted that Arborist reports on the DPW’s website indentify hundreds of trees to be removed. She characterized it as half of Oregon Road and 45% of Edgewood. She opined there had to be middle ground between “dead trees falling down on people and having hearings on everything”. The bylaw was meant to define what an emergency is, and when things can come down without a hearing. She followed that when trees have been on an arborist report for several months without removal, she didn’t understand why there couldn’t be a public hearing.
Other members agreed with Luttrell’s position. Morris called for continuing open dialogue with the DPW and BOS for clarity. He suggested that Quinn and Luttrell move forward to find a “clear set of rules that everyone can live with”.
*Luttrell represented the Planning Board. Brian Shea initially looked into the situation for selectmen. Sam Stivers took over for the BOS that spring.
**Until recently, the Planning Board had believed based on prior research that only about 24 roads were designated as scenic under bylaws passed in 1976-78. On January 10th, Town Planner Karina Quinn told the board that resident Debbie DeMuria had requested from the Town Clerk for any documents from all Town Meetings that included the word “scenic”. She discovered that in 1978, voters designated all existing roads as scenic roads. (Since then, Town Counsel opined that scenic road laws can only apply to roads that officially exist at the time of the vote.) State law does prevent numbered state routes, or state owned roads, as being included in that designation. Therefore, the designation doesn’t/won’t extend to Routes 9, 85, or 30.