Harrison Avenue Neighbors Fight To Save Maple Tree From National Grid’s Chipper
As residents mobilize to rescue a sugar maple on their street, questions arise about the city and the utility’s compliance with a state law that seems to requires public notification before a mature street tree is cut down.
By MARY SERREZE
NORTHAMPTON — A group of Harrison Avenue residents are fighting to save an 80-year-old sugar maple tree that the electrical utility National Grid tried unsuccessfully to remove on a Friday morning two weeks ago.
Lewis Tree Service Inc., under contract with the utility, showed up outside the 64 Harrison Ave. home of physician Robert Fishman with a chipper truck early on the morning on March 16, ready to do the deed, only to be stymied by an upscale Earth-First!-style sidewalk insurrection.
“I ran outside in my slippers,” said lawyer Kim Rosen, who lives across the street from the mature sugar maple tree, which was probably planted around the 1930s.
Fishman had already left for work, but his wife, Mary Anne, stepped outside and spoke with the workers while Rosen worked the phones, calling the office of Mayor David Narkewicz and the Department of Public Works (DPW).
Richard Parasiliti Jr., the DPW’s superintendent of streets, quickly showed up on the scene when he caught wind of the conflict, and spoke with Rosen and Mrs. Fishman for about an hour.
“I got into kind of an altercation with Rich Parisiliti,” said Rosen. [Clarification: Rosen, who contacted Northampton Media with several telephone and text messages over the weekend, denied having used the word "altercation" and emphasized that his conflict with Parasiliti was verbal, not physical.]
In the meantime, the Lewis Tree Service workers climbed back into their truck and drove away for the day, leaving the tree intact, but with an uncertain fate.
On the day before the showdown, Dr. Fishman told Northampton Media, he noticed a red ribbon tied around the trunk of the tree. He and his wife drove to DPW headquarters to inquire as to the ribbon’s significance, where they met with Assistant Civil Engineer Felix Harvey, who also serves as acting chairman of the city’s Tree Committee. Harvey, Fishman recalled, explained that the ribbon meant the maple was a “tree of interest,” but that no decision had been made regarding its fate.
By the next morning, though, it became clear to Harrison Avenue neighbors that someone had made a decision that the tree had to go.
Early Friday, the Harrison Avenue neighbors were shocked to see a big red “X” painted on the maple’s trunk and professional tree-removal equipment parked at the curb. When he called the DPW headquarters, Rosen said later, Harvey told him he had no knowledge that the tree was slated for removal.
Over the weekend, the neighbors mobilized. They made phone calls and sent emails to city officials, and a petition was circulated up and down the street. Among the emails Fishman fired off was one to Mayor Narkewicz.
Again, mysteriously, another decision had been made, this one resulting in a “stay of execution” for the tree.
Near the end of business on Monday, March 19th, Fishman got a reply and an explanation from Mayoral Aide Lyn Simmons.
“We have been following up on this issue all day,” Simmons wrote in her email. Parasiliti, whom she said would be out of town for 10 days, had agreed to take no action until March 28th, the date of the next meeting of the city’s Tree Committee.
Tree Committee Meeting Yields No Resolution
The Tree Committee, which usually deliberates in isolation, was met this week by a group of eight or so Ward 2 residents, including City Councilor Paul Spector. The neighbors pulled plastic chairs from a stack in the corner and shoe-horned themselves into the small, dark conference room at DPW headquarters.
Parasiliti kicked off the evening with a slideshow documenting problems with the tree, including cracks, wounds, a cavity, and a large dead branch.
“I hate having to do this,” said Parasiliti. “We don’t just go around wholesale cutting down trees.”
Parasiliti had deemed the maple a “hazard tree” at the request of National Grid, he explained. The electrical utility would pay for the tree’s removal. National Grid’s requests aren’t always granted, he said; but in this case, after examining the tree himself, the highway chief said he said he believed removal was warranted.
When Rosen noted that the Massachusetts shade tree statute known as Chapter 87 seems to call for a public hearing whenever a street tree is to be removed, DPW staffer Harvey said there’s an exemption in the law for so-called “hazard trees.”
Rosen responded that he’d read Chapter 87, and could find no such language.
The maple is located between the street and sidewalk. Such trees are within the layout of the street, on land owned by the city and under its jurisdiction, not the homeowner’s, Parasiliti explained.
In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and last year’s freak October snowstorm, which cut power to the city for several days, both the DPW and National Grid have stepped up efforts to identify problem trees, said Parasiliti. Aside from the electrical utility’s concerns, Parasiliti added, the city’s liability is also an issue.
Fishman countered that Irene and the snowstorm constituted extreme “stress tests” that the tree passed without losing branches or falling down. “That tree is not a hazard,” he said.
Fishman and Rosen said they’d solicited two independent opinions from licensed arborists, both of whom said the tree could be saved with some remedial action, including trimming dead wood and installing a new cable to stabilize the largest branches.
“I’m willing to pay for the tree work, to schedule twice-yearly maintenance, and submit professional reports to the DPW,” Fishman told the Tree Committee.
Spector said he wasn’t sure if a legal mechanism existed for a private citizen to take over the care and responsibility for a city-owned street tree. “That would be a question for the city solicitor,” he said.
If the city would devote some resources to caring for its shade trees, then removal — courtesy of National Grid — wouldn’t seem so tempting, Fishman said:
“The tree. . .which survived the stress tests of Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm. . .is now deemed a hazard by the arborist employed by National Grid, whose transformer happens to be adjacent to the tree. The city gets to have the tree taken down at no expense to them, so it’s ‘OK! let’s take the tree down!’”
Parasiliti said he’s aware that trees planted generations ago in the city are starting to age, but noted the DPW hasn’t had a budget for tree maintenance since 2003. About 40-50 trees are planted each year to replace the 70 or so that are removed, he said.
“In my opinion, it’s a risk,” said Parasiliti of the sugar maple. “That tree is right at the tipping point.” Parasiliti added that the tree could fall, injuring children, pets, and property.
Fishman responded that a citywide look at the street tree policy is in order.
“If we keep going along this path, where trees are not being replaced at the rate they’re taken down, then Paradise City will begin to lose its canopy,” he said.
Tree-lined streets are part of the New England tradition, said Fishman, who noted that urban trees provide homes for wildlife, help quell air pollution, and provide shade.
Fishman and Rosen both said that a certified arborist — and not one who works for National Grid — should evaluate any city shade tree before it’s deemed a “hazard.”
After some discussion about the possibility of forming a fundraising group to support the health of the city’s street trees, Parasiliti promised the Harrison Avenue neighbors that their particular maple would stand for now.
The highway chief then advised the group to submit a formal letter and their arborists’ reports to DPW Director Edward “Ned” Huntley, who would speak with City Solicitor Alan Seewald about whether an individual can adopt a city-owned tree.
In Massachusetts, public shade trees such as the Harrison Avenue sugar maple are regulated under the General Law known as Chapter 87.
Section 3 of the state law outlines requirements for a public hearing, with publication in a newspaper seven days prior, whenever a tree removal on a public way is planned by a city’s Tree Warden or his deputy.
However, Section 14 sets up a different standard for utility companies such as National Grid, and exempts them from the public hearing requirements of Section 3 if an annual “Hazard Tree Removal Plan” is submitted to a municipality’s Tree Warden “not less than 90 days prior to the date a utility proposes to begin tree removal.”
Hazard trees are defined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as “structurally unsound trees that could strike electric supply lines when they fail,” according to the online publication Transmission and Distribution World. A primer on Tree Risk Assessment by the Massachusetts Arborists Association can be found here.
Under Section 14 of the law, electrical utilities that opt to submit the annual plan must still give city officials notice two weeks before they take down a tree:
“Notwithstanding approval of a vegetation management plan or hazard tree removal plan, a utility shall notify a tree warden, in writing, not less than 14 days prior to beginning maintenance work or tree removal work in a municipality.”
Section 14 further stipulates that the notice shall include the date on which the utility will begin work and the phone number of the person or persons supervising the work in the field.
It’s unclear whether National Grid submitted this notice to the city before beginning work.
The city’s Tree Committee has not posted minutes of its meetings to the city’s website for more than two years. The committee’s web page contains outdated information on its membership and does not list contact information.
In 2003, upon the establishment of the city’s Tree Committee, the power to designate “hazard trees” was granted to the Department of Public Works:
“The Committee, acting as Tree Warden, will delegate to the Department of Public Works responsibility for determining hazard trees and removing them. The Committee may rescind this authority by majority vote and the approval of the Mayor.” (See city ordinance)
Yet the Tree Committee reserved its right to oversee adherence to Chapter 87, and to “Receive and update the procedures for identifying hazard trees and determine appropriate protocols for removal.”
Northampton Media has submitted a public records requests to the city’s Department of Public Works for documents relevant to public shade tree removal in the city, including past minutes and agendas from Tree Committee meetings, National Grid’s annual hazard tree plan, a list of trees removed via the mechanism of hazard designation, and any notices of public hearings.
National Grid media representative Charlotte McCormack said Friday she had no knowledge of the Harrison Avenue imbroglio, yet promised, within the next several days, to provide Northampton Media with documents and information relevant to the utility’s tree-removal activities within the city.
© 2012 Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org