Planning rejects tree removals at Flagg & Deerfoot intersection (plus an update on Tree bylaw Article)

by beth on April 27, 2022

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Above: The Planning Board voted that a plan to change the intersection of the scenic Deerfoot and Flagg roads didn’t have enough merit to be worth sacrificing two live public shade trees. (image from Google maps)

On Monday night, the Planning Board and Tree Warden held a hearing on the removal of two trees at the intersection of Flagg Road and Deerfoot Road. The hearing took place the same night as the final hearings* on the proposed Tree Bylaw and Scenic Roads Bylaw prior to the evening of Annual Town Meeting. So, I’ll throw in an update on those efforts too.

Tree Bylaw and Scenic Roads Bylaw Update

Last night, the Select Board voted 4-1 to not support the Tree Bylaw or Scenic Roads Bylaws as written in the Annual Town Meeting Warrant. That won’t come as a shock to Planning Board members after a joint meeting between the two groups and the Advisory Committee two weeks ago. However, at that meeting Select Board members did acknowledge merits of the bylaw.

At Planning Board’s April 11th hearing, the board agreed to make some revisions suggested by Select Board member Andrew Dennington. They focused on the definitions of public shade trees and trees that are imminent hazards. 

At the joint meeting with Advisory on April 13th, Select Board member Marty Healey opposed power the bylaw would granted the Tree Warden (who is appointed with a 3 year term). He argued that policies and fines created by the Tree Warden be approved by another committee, preferrably a newly appointed Tree Committee. He agreed that having the Planning Board’s oversight would be better than nothing. Planning members who attended the meeting agreed to the change. However, there wasn’t a formal vote then or at this week’s meeting.

If they do make any changes, they will need to be as an amendment proposed on Town Meeting floor since the Warrant was already printed.

There were questions about whether the Tree bylaw puts more of a burden on the Tree Warden or homeowners. Planning members argue that it simply puts in place a process by which the Town can meet its existing obligations under Mass General Law. 

Under the Tree Bylaw, residents have to get permits from the Tree Warden for planting trees in the “public right of way” or doing construction or excavation within the “drip line” of public shade trees. Advisory Member Andrew Pfaff interpreted that simply planting flower bulbs under the tree drip line would require a permit. Planning rejected adding a definition to clarify construction or excavation.

Much of the opposition from the Select Board has focused on not knowing how much it will cost the Town to pay a Tree Warden to handle the outlined responsibilities.

However, Select Board members didn’t disagree with the intent of the bylaw. They did disagree with the intent of the Scenic Road bylaw. They argued that the Town should be more selective about which roads are scenic.

Planning members argue that by designating more roads as scenic roads, it makes the decisions over tree removals more transparent. On non-scenic roads, the Tree Warden can hold hearings at the DPW or the side of the road. The consolidated hearings are more easily viewed by the public.

On Monday night, Planning Chair Don Morris said that he had heard questions about what happens when the Tree Warden and Planning Board disagree. He reported that officials in other towns told him they learn to collaborate, since they are all pulling in the same direction. He referred to teamwork and compromise.

Later that night, the hypothetical played out in real time.

Tree Removal Hearing for Flagg & Deerfoot Road

The Tree Warden, Christopher Leroy, acknowledged that both trees (a Maple in the intersection island and Hickory next to the walkway to Neary School) are alive. Leroy, an employee of the Dept of Public Works, recommended the trees removal to accommodate a road construction project aimed at improving safety.

The Planning Board questioned the merit of the road plans and unanimously opposed taking down live trees for the project.

Although the hearing was a “consolidated” one, the Tree Warden was a different ruling body than the Planning Board under state laws. That means that instead of a 5-1 vote, there were two separate decisions. Since residents opposed the Tree Warden’s recommendation in writing, he is compelled to bring his decision to the Select Board for review. But, according to Planning Chair Don Morris, the Select Board doesn’t have the authority to override Planning’s decision. 

Morris clarified that the Board is willing to take down trees in public ways as needed on a case by case basis. But:

if what we’re finding is if they’re healthy trees and the project isn’t essential, the trees shouldn’t come down.

Some Planning members focused on preserving the trees. Member Marnie Hoolahan made clear that her intent was also to force the Select Board to review and reconsider the road project which she opposes as designed.

Flagg and Deerfoot intersectionA representative from VHB, the Town’s engineering consultants, explained that the intersection changes were recommended by a Flagg Road Safety Study. The intersection is being redesigned to make it more difficult for large tractor trailers to turn onto Flagg from Deerfoot. While the engineer noted that it wouldn’t prevent the large trucks from turning, he said it would make it “less likely”.

Morris rebutted that he has observed that cars from other states and large trucks frequently are sent by GPS from Main Street to Deerfoot, to Flagg to Route 9 West/495. He didn’t believe a more difficult intersection would change that. He opined that they would just drive over the corner of lawns to make the turns.

Planning Member Meme Lutrell questioned the logic that the intersection would make Flagg Road safer. She noted that all but one accident listed in the report were further down the road, not near the intersection. 

Hoolahan, who lives on an offshoot of Flagg Road, said that the Safety Study was prompted by a 2016 meeting between Select Board and Flagg area residents about safety concerns. [Editor’s Note: At that and other public meetings around that time, several residents complained that the road was already unsafe without adding more traffic.]

Hoolahan recounted the Select Board had agreed to conduct a comprehensive traffic study report that was never done. Instead they conducted the safety report. Hoolahan believed it was based on how the Town would handle hundreds of new car trips caused by building the Park Central Development. Since the development permit was vacated by the court**, she questioned the necessity. She also worried that the new plans would turn Deerfoot into a runway, encouraging cars to speed down it.

Other concerns she noted were about the layout in terms of safety and differences from the initial safety report recommendation.

Flagg Road resident Debbie DeMuria (who is running to serve on the Planning Board) opposed the tree removals and road project. She argued that removing trees to improve sight lines increases speeding on roads. 

DeMuria referred to Town Meeting’s vote last year that the Town pursue a Truck Exclusion on Flagg Road. The Select Board had put off action until a complete traffic study of all truck traffic in town was conducted. Funding that study was approved at Fall Town Meeting, but results still aren’t in.***

Given the repeated statements by Planning Members and public commenters about lack of safety issues at the intersection, it’s worth noting a safety issue that had been publicly raised in past meetings.

The Town had been requested to address at the intersection was the repeat occurrence of accidents caused when tractor trailers attempt to turn left from Flagg Road onto Deerfoot Road to get back to Route 9. On multiple occasions, the trucks have ended up stuck on the property across the way. (In the past, my impression was that plans to reconfigure the intersection were to intended to make that turn more navigable for those turns.)

*As is their tradition, Planning does intend to hold a hearing just prior to the start of Annual Town Meeting. That agenda has yet to be posted.

*30 days have passed since the ruling. As of this afternoon, the Court hasn’t updated the online trial record to indicate a notice of appeal had been filed. 

**Last night, Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio updated in that board’s meeting that the traffic data had been collected. VHB is working on analyzing results for a report to be issued in a few weeks.

Updated (5/24/22 4:05 pm): Looking back, I saw that I misnamed the Tree Warden. (Having the last name Warden would be really on the nose.) 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard April 27, 2022 at 7:03 PM

Along Flagg Rd., between Deerfoot and Rt. 9, there are quite a few very large, very dead trees. They are dead, as in deceased and defunct. Located at the edge or within a few feet of the pavement, the town needs to step in and remove them. While various town officials play a game of turf war, it’s entirely reasonable to believe that any of these trees could collapse at any time. Massive branches have come crashing down onto the pavement during past storms. If a motorist, pedestrian, or bicyclist is maimed or killed, the town is going to find itself on the hook for millions of dollars in legal exposure, when it knew of the continuing danger, but opted not to remedy it, for whatever reason. These are huge, dead trees; one would think common sense would prevail, making this a simple matter. No doubt other streets throughout the town share a similar threat.

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2 trees April 28, 2022 at 7:58 AM

100% agree with this. It is so incredibly irresponsible of our town to leave them in place. Why is there even a debate? What rules are in place that prohibit the town from cutting down a dead tree? Flagg Rd is a disaster, it is unsafe. And the argument about the lack of accidents is incredibly ignorant. Let’s wait for something tragic to happen and THEN we can call it unsafe.

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3 beth April 28, 2022 at 9:10 AM

I could be wrong, but it sounds like you are confusing some issues. So, to clarify…

Nobody advocated that dead trees shouldn’t be removed. The dead trees that Richard refers to aren’t the trees that were being considered in Monday night’s hearing. Those are on other parts of Flagg Road. And the Planning Board’s Tree Bylaw wouldn’t curb the removal of trees considered to be imminent hazards. It’s to curb the removal of public shade trees that aren’t hazards. If the state of a tree or the hazard posed is questionable, then Planning wants a public dialogue to improve transparency on the decision making.

According to the Tree Warden, the trees considered in Monday’s hearing are alive. He didn’t indicate that they were a hazard. His recommendation for removal was based on the road project. One would be in the way of the project and the other would have so much root disturbance it wouldn’t be able to survive.

Plus the objections to the road project were partially based on questioning whether the planned changes at the intersection would actually make it safer. VHB’s engineer walked through the rationale for why changing crosswalk locations would make it safer. But member Marnie Hoolahan raised concerns that a car emerging from Flagg Road after a stop sign having to almost immediately stop for a crosswalk. She also worried that cars continuing on Deerfoot would go faster based on the new layout.

The main purpose for the intersection change was stated as to reduce tractor trailers traveling to Flagg Road. Chair Don Morris questioned if the intersection instead of reducing truck traffic would just cause trucks to run over lawns.

Some area residents are advocating that a more effective way to reduce truck traffic would be to apply for a Heavy Vehicle Exclusion on Flagg Road.

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4 SB Resident April 28, 2022 at 12:34 PM

It’s incredibly frustrating that the town is worrying about redoing a completely functional intersection when so many of our roads are in complete disrepair. Driving to the schools on Parkerville is awful.

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5 northsider May 3, 2022 at 10:09 AM

Completely functional intersection? If you can state that seriously, you must not drive through the intersection much because it is very dangerous.

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