Town continues to grapple with tree issues; Planning Board Article hearings open Monday (Updated)

Above: Officials continue to discuss how to handle requests to remove public shade trees that are dead, healthy ones that pose other issues, and ones whose lifespans may be debatable. (images cropped from DPW notice.)

On Monday, the Planning Board will hold public hearings on two proposed Articles related to preserving viable trees along Southborough roads.

At recent Planning Board and Select Board meetings, officials discussed issues around the recent Tree Warden vacancy, needed process improvements, and short and long term planning. The good news was both boards agreed process improvements were needed. Yet there was still a lack of consensus on what path forward the Town should take.

At Planning’s meeting on February 28th, Select Board members pushed to delay Articles to a Fall Town Meeting. That would give the boards more time to work out the long term strategy. In the meantime, they would focus on patching shorter term needs caused by the Tree Warden vacancy. After the Select Board adjourned, Planning decided against a delay. They scheduled hearings to prepare the Articles for the May 4th Annual Town Meeting.

Scenic Road Article

As I’ve previously posted, Town officials recently learned that most roads in Southborough were designated Scenic Roads as of 1978’s Annual Town Meeting. (That is all roads that had been adopted by that April, excluding the state controlled numbered routes.) The new Scenic Road Article would add to the list the 34 streets adopted as Town roads since.

The pitched benefit is it would make it easier for the Town to adopt consistent policies for handling of tree (and stonewall) removals. However, the process is more stringent on scenic roads. That’s considered a plus for officials who believe trees need more protection. But for officials who argue for a more streamlined process to handle hazards posed by trees, it’s a concern.

Tree Bylaw Article

The Planning Board’s Tree Bylaw Article is aimed at creating a check and balance on the Dept. of Public Work’s process for removing trees. Planning Board members have intimated that the DPW has over aggressively labeled trees as hazards in the past to bypass hearings before removing them. Tension between Planning and the DPW over improving the process led to the DPW’s Tree Warden resigning that title earlier this winter.

The proposed Article describes the process for removing a Public Shade Tree.* The bylaw’s defines removal as including actions likely to kill the tree:

the cutting down of any public shade tree and/or any other act that will likely cause such a tree to die within a three-year period, including but not limited to improper or excessive pruning and construction, demolition, and excavation activities.

The proposed bylaw sets defines a Tree Warden’s qualifications and its responsibilities. In most situations a hearing would be required before removing a public shade tree 1.5+ inches in diameter (at Breast Height). Depending on tree location, the hearing may be joint with either the Planning Board or Conservation Commission. To approve removal, one of the following criteria must be met:

(a) The tree is dead, diseased, terminally injured, in danger of falling, dangerously close to existing structures, causing disruption of public utility service, causing drainage or passage problems upon rights-of-way, or posing a threat to pedestrian or vehicular safely;
(b) The tree interferes with structures, utilities, streets, sidewalks or proposed necessary improvements for which there is no alternative;
(c) There is no alternative to removal of the tree.

The bylaw would allow the Warden to remove trees in an emergency without a hearing. But it sets standards for the circumstances and bases determination on objective criteria.

You can find the most recent draft (and the Scenic Road draft) in the Planning Board’s packet for Monday’s meeting, here.

Current Issues/Process

There has been some public debate about whether the Town’s Tree Warden should be an arborist. At the March 15th Select Board Meeting, DPW Superintendent Karen Galligan said that while the Tree Warden should have knowledge of trees, hiring an Arborist wouldn’t make sense.

She noted that the public won’t trust an arborist who works for a tree removal company. And in trying to find someone to contract who doesn’t, she was quoted a rate of $150 per hour. Galligan pointed out that some trees are so clearly dead that, anyone who looks at it (including residents and Planning members) can see it without a report.

She opined that contracting an arborist only makes sense for trees whose status is questionable. She also believed that it doesn’t make sense to pay an arborist’s rate for someone to sit through board meetings waiting for a hearing.

On the other side of the issue, the DPW sometimes seeks to remove trees that aren’t dead, because they interfere with road safety. Galligan noted that in those instances, again, there is no need for an arborist’s report.

Two trees at the intersection of Flagg and Deerfoot roads meet that latter criteria. Galligan is looking to remove them as part of the project to widen the intersection based on a history of accidents involving large trucks.**

Galligan said that a joint safety hearing of the Planning Board and Tree Warden is needed to discuss that issue. Since the vacant position reports to the Select Board, she told the Board they currently are the acting Tree Warden. The Select Board agreed to work on scheduling a joint hearing for those trees with Planning.

Galligan is also seeking a separate hearing with Planning, not involving the Select Board, for 26 trees that residents have asked to be removed. At the meeting on March 15th, she described them as all clearly dead. However, she has since posted the tree details and photos for the public (at the Select Board’s request.) While most appear to fit that narrative, a few don’t. 

examples of trees residents asked to have removed (cropped from DPW posted pics)The trees include ones that residents have complained about as hazards due to their location, and or past dropping of limbs. Yet the list also includes two large ones that appear to be healthy. An Oak Hill Road resident asked about the ability to remove them to improve site lines from her driveway for safety reasons. 

In between are a couple that may fall in the category that Select Board Member Sam Stivers pointed out gets the most comment from the public. They are trees that aren’t fully dead, but an arborist may determine have limited lifespan. (In this case, issues include potential termites, fungus, and branches that have fallen off in past.)

In the near term, Galliganhopes to be able to contract a retired Southborough resident who successfully worked for them in the past. She said he wouldn’t be willing to write up reports, but she hoped that he would walk with her and the Town Planner to look at the 26  trees and DPW would do the write up.

Longer term, Galligan advocated that any arborist for the Town should be hired by the Planning Board, though the DPW would work with them. She told the Board that residents disbelieve reports by anyone hired by the DPW, even when contractors aren’t connected to a tree removal service. She followed that if a contractor is engaged by another department, it shouldn’t come out of her department’s budget.

*A Public Shade Tree’s definition includes ones on or within 20 feet of the public right-of-way, except on state highways. It’s worth noting that, according to Planning Board Chair Don Morris, the public right-of-way width/boundary varies greatly on the country roads. While the DPW has road plans that show it, it’s not something easily determined by the average resident.

**At the start of the March 15th meeting, during Public Comment Flagg Road resident Debbie DeMuria told the Select Board that the Flagg/Deerfoot intersection project shouldn’t move forward until the Town shares results of the Town’s Global Traffic Study. Fall Special Town Meeting approved a study to look at traffic patterns and issues related to large/heavy trucks in Southboorugh. The Select Board made the request for data to aid them in deciding on a request by Flagg Road residents to seek a truck exclusion on their road.

Select Board Members didn’t comment on that. The last public update on the study was in December, when Town Administrator Mark Purple indicated the Town’s consultants might not begin the work until the spring.

Updated (4/7/22 12:39 pm): In this post, I didn’t write about the Article’s restrictions on what can be newly planted in a Town’s right of way. For my coverage of that click here.

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2 years ago

Isn’t all this tree bylaw stuff really about a power struggle between the DPW and Planning Board? This rule is about 100 pages long! Just crazy.

2 years ago

Oh, and can the Planning Board clarify that this new rule will apply to any tree within20 feet of a town street?

Peter Jacobs
2 years ago

Why not look at how towns like Weston and Lincoln have been managing their beautiful shade trees?

Too Much Regulation
2 years ago

Although the street in Southborough where my wife and I live is lovely, it’s a typical suburban street it a’int a scenic road.

I think this bylaw is way too broad. Every street a scenic bylaw? Really?

Too Much Regulation
2 years ago

OK. Now I’m in trouble with my wife over this post:)

The opinion expressed in the previous post reflects the views of a chastised husband who did not consult his lovely and intelligent wife before he posted.

Leave my trees alone
2 years ago

I will vote to oppose this bill at town meeting. I should have the right to plant any beautiful tree in my yard, not just one in an “approved” list that some government person created.

And I have been a proud registered Democrat my whole life.

2 years ago

I am all for having reasonable regulation in place for protecting the characteristics of the town, but agree there is definitely some over reach in this. Secondly, and I complained to the BOS about this last year (they wanted pictures of the dead trees). Why do we need a hearing to cut down a dead tree? If it is June and there are no leaves on the tree.. it is dead! Do we need a forensic investigation and meetings for that? There are at least a dozen very large very obviously dead trees along Flagg Rd. Why are we waiting for a tragedy to happen? I love trees, but I like people more. Cut them down. If we want to have a meeting about a living tree, fine.. makes sense.

Reasonable approach
2 years ago

We have trees literally in the roadway on Flagg and Latisquama among other places. We need to make these roads safer and add sidewalks. Any ridiculous document for a power struggle and delaying town improvements is absurd. Vote this down and let us take a reasonable approach that isn’t rooted in bureaucracy. We need to enable a decision maker to take action and not waste our tax dollars on ridiculous tail chasing.

2 years ago

There so many obvious dead trees around town. Why the heck do we need to get approval? Just cut the darn things down before they cause unnecessary power outages, damage, or worse injuries. Why can’t the tree warden just have the ability to make these decisions?

Frustrated Resident
2 years ago

I sent notice about a tree that is dead and leaning into the street last october (2021). I got an email saying she would bring it to planning board’s attention. This tree has been hit by trucks and plows repeatedly and is clearly a hazard. Now over 6 months later that tree is still there and on the ‘list’ to be reviewed. This weekend it was hit again.

Now the tree is actively falling onto the street every day it is markedly further into the road. I have sent more emails and photos showing that changes day to day. I got one response saying that the planning board will look into it ‘soon’ though according to this article they were supposed to address this more than a week ago.

I have sent emails and we have called to let the town know that if anyone is hit or the power goes out that the town is responsible. If it falls on a car, like the dead tree in front of the library did several years ago, someone could be very hurt. No one wanted to take the tree down at the library because it was pretty, but it almost killed someone when it landed on her car.

DPW has now put a barrel in front of the tree, but still has not brought anyone to take the tree down.

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