Selectmen invite Planning Board to discuss Tree Removal Policy

On Tuesday, I wrote about a disagreement between the Planning Board and Public Works over the process for removing trees. That night, related issues were discussed by the Board of Selectmen. It included clarification that for a large portion of the Town, even clearly dead/hazardous trees/limbs can’t be trimmed/removed without a Planning Board Hearing.

BOS Chair Lisa Braccio updated the Board on recent Town Counsel advice that prompted the resignation of Southborough’s Tree Warden.

Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan explained that previously, Public Works had been under the impression that if a tree was dead, they could remove it without a hearing. In recent months, they were advised by Town Counsel that isn’t true on designated “scenic roads”. Under related Mass General Law, Counsel opined that trimmings/removals require a hearing held by the Planning Board.

Research by the Planning Department found 1975 & 1976 Town Meeting votes to give the scenic designation to about 20 roads in town. Very recently, a 1978 Town Meeting vote was discovered that adopted all Town roads as scenic roads, except for state-owned numbered routes. Town Counsel has advised that it extended only to roads that existed at the time.

Following that news, Southborough’s Tree Warden, Chris Leroy, resigned. (It appears that he resigned just that responsibility and stipend, not from his position in Public Works.) A memo from Public Works Superintendent Karen Galligan explained:

Town Counsel’s opinion on the M.G.L.’s tree removal requirements are different than what the DPW’s understanding was and therefore, the DPW’s operational protocols are no longer valid, specifically on Scenic Roads.

As explained in Mr. Leroy’s resignation, he no longer feels that he can properly, within the M.G.L. ‘s requirements, execute the duties of the Tree Warden and still provide the service that he, and the DPW, deem appropriate for a resident concerned with a dead tree. The DPW does not have anyone else that meets the M.G.L.’s Tree Warden requirements that is also willing to take on the accountability and responsibility of the position without the ability to act based on their experience and conscience.

Braccio told the Board she wanted to advise them of the issue, and schedule a deeper discussion for their next meeting. Ultimately, they agreed to invite the Planning Board and Town Counsel to their next meeting to discuss how to proceed.

Below are highlights from the discussion and more background. 

Selectman Marty Healey worried that process delays caused by hearings will increase the Town’s liability by delaying tree removals. Selectman Sam Stivers disagreed, countering that delays already existed for financial reasons.

Stivers has been working with Planning Board’s Meme Lutrell and Galligan on efforts to revise the tree removal policy. He noted that the Town has been able to quickly handle a sizable number of trees in a single hearing. He felt the bigger obstacle was budgeting for the needed tree removals. He said that Public Works has a big backlog of trees that everyone agrees need to come down but limited funds to sign the contracts to do it.

Galligan’s memo had also included:

The DPW intends to bid a tree trimming and removal contract for tree work on Town properties. If the Selectmen direct, the contract can be used, upon tree hearing approval by the Tree Warden and/or Planning Board, to remove or trim trees on the public way. If the Selectmen want to use the contract for public way removals, the Tree Warden and the Planning Board will have to prioritize the removals and trimming to keep their requests within the DPW’s budgeted tree removal line item.

Town Administrator Mark Purple, opined that budgeting for the Tree Warden is a bigger issue. He explained the DPW had been fortunate to have an employee with the proper certification for the role. It had only cost the Town a $4,000 stipend. Now, selectmen will need to look at adding an arborist contract to the budget. And given Town Counsel’s opinions, the hourly cost could rack up.

Galligan followed that, under the Tree Blyaw Planning Board was drafting, Leroy wouldn’t have met their criteria for a Tree Warden anyway. Their bylaw would require an arborist or someone with a arbor culture degree.

One related issue that selectmen didn’t address in the discussion was public claims that the DPW had  mischaracterized the condition of some trees taken down. However, Galligan mentioned sometimes residents “don’t believe” the dead trees they took down were dead, or didn’t look at it but just know it’s on a scenic road.

Previously, I wrote about a complaint by Deerfoot Road neighbors in 2020 who claimed a 200 year old tree was cut down that they believed was still viable. In a comment earlier today, resident Linda Perkins shared an email exchange with the Town about a tree taken down near a culvert on Flagg Road that August. Galligan had answered her:

National Grid Took down the tree at the south end of Flagg Road. National Grid’s Arborist walked Lovers Lane and Flagg Road with the DPW and identified trees that they needed to trim or remove to protect their power network. The DPW agreed that the trees that they were looking to remove were dead or severely compromised.

On August 4, 2020, Perkins emailed selectmen:

Today I spoke with David Donoghue, National Grid Forestry Supervisor. He is the Massachusetts Certified Arborist who walked Lovers Lane and Flagg Rd with DPW to identify trees requiring work to maintain National Grid service. Regarding the very large tree at the culvert on Flagg Rd, Mr Donoghue said National Grid paid town-hired contractors to cut branches and large limbs that were hanging over the road. He remembered this tree because of its huge diameter. He said the tree is located at a main circuit for the area. He also said he was not concerned with its removal because it would not benefit National Grid. National Grid did not pay to have this tree removed. There are many dead trees nearby on Flagg Rd that were not cut down. Why was this particular tree, which was located at/near the proposed curb cut for Park Central, felled and at whose expense?

According to Perkins, Braccio had promised a more comprehensive reply that never came and Sam Stivers also promised to look into it. Later that month, Stivers spoke at a BOS meeting about working with Planning and Public Works on a new policy for the tree removal process. For a few months, he updated that he believed they were close to an agreement. Then it dropped off BOS minutes for about 10 months.

At an August 2021 meeting, the board discussed a proposed tree policy with Galligan. She told the board that the DPW hadn’t removed a “live tree” since 2014. Stivers told Galligan that the state law doesn’t differentiate the process for live or dead trees. Braccio said that the Town would seek guidance from Counsel and follow up at the next BOS meeting.

It didn’t come up again in minutes until November 3rd when Stivers presented an update on a proposed policy and process. At that point, Planning and DPW still had some issues to iron out. This week was the first time since then that selectmen addressed the policy. In between, updates at Planning Board meetings confirmed that there continued to be back and forth between Planning and Public Works as Lutrell worked on a bylaw. And over the past two years, Public Works and Planning have held tree removal hearings.

It’s also worth noting that when the BOS held an appeal hearing last November for tree removals on Route 30 next to the Library, they voted to save three of the nine trees that the DPW initially planned to have removed.

Last week, Planning Chair Don Morris asked to open a dialogue with selectmen about the tree removal process. A letter from Town Planner Karina Quinn invited selectmen to have a representative meet with Galligan and a rep from Planning. This week, Braccio opined it would be more productive to invite their entire Board to join BOS’ next meeting.

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Curious
4 months ago

Curious
It has been noted that the tree warden resigned from that position, but would continue in his other DPW role. What role is that? I’ve been told that he lives in Worcester and has a fairly new expensive large town owned truck that he takes home. Is that because he was on call as the tree warden? Now that he’s no longer the tree warden will he still be driving the truck to and from Worcester every day? (And I assume that we pay for the gas?)

Curious
4 months ago

My question was what is his other role in the DPW and why is he taking a town truck to Worcester every day? I know a lot of people have a long commute, but not in a town vehicle. The $4K stipend has nothing to do with my question. Maybe Karen, Mr Purple or the selectmen can answer my question.

John
4 months ago
Reply to  Curious

Curious,

Perhaps you can pick up the telephone and call Karen, Mr Purple or the selectmen and ask that question directly yourself? If you feel compelled, you can post their response here.

Beth has a lot to do, and she gathers what information she can, but I think it is way above the responsibility of a volunteer blogger to reach out to others fro posters, and obtain the answers each and every question and request that everyone asks of her.

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