Monday, April 6, 2009

Politics and chainsaws

A couple of days ago, we received notice that the city is going to cut down the three remaining large trees on our street. They’re reconstructing the street and sidewalks after doing gas main and water supply trenching, and the city engineer’s office wants to take the easy approach rather than work around the larger trees.

The tree warden’s public hearing about cutting down our trees is scheduled for Passover seder, which isn’t an entirely convenient time for us to go. So yesterday I sent e-mail to the tree warden saying that I object to cutting down the trees, and asking whether the e-mail would be given equal weight to showing up at the meeting.

This morning the doorbell rings at 7:30, and it’s the tree warden at our door. Even though more than 20 people reportedly got together on Saturday to complain to each other about cutting down the trees, I’m apparently the only resident who has actually filed an objection. The tree warden was very nice. He explained that my e-mailed objection would be just as objectistructive (obstructilicious?) as showing up at the meeting, and that by law if even one person objects, then only the mayor can authorize cutting down the tree. But he’d really like me to withdraw my objection on one of the trees, which has a rotted trunk and needs to come down regardless. We had a long arboreal conversation about the tree hearing process, about the zelkovas and ash trees in the playground next door to us, about Asian longhorn beetles in Worcester and ice storms and mutual aid.

I’m stunned. The city has never welcomed public input, let alone engaged in an actual dialogue. Sadly, my lack of faith in the city was restored when I went to the city engineer’s office today to ask about the plans for the street and sidewalk reconstruction and about new trees. They claim to have held a neighborhood meeting about the plans at an unspecified time and date (and that nobody in the neighborhood ever heard about). They would never consider adapting plans to existing trees or to community input, they are actively seeking to eliminate all planting strips between sidewalks and streets, and they will not plant any public shade trees that will grow as high as the power lines. Their strong preference is for a monoculture of Bradford pears which stay small and break apart in winter weather as soon as they reach maturity, and there is nobody responsible for that policy to communicate with.

In a closer to ideal world, the neighborhood would have an opportunity to get together and discuss various options, such as sidewalk width, adding planting strips or not, what sorts of trees to plant, whether sidewalk bumpouts would be useful for traffic calming or planting beds or trees or bike racks or benches, what our parking needs are, etc. The city engineer’s office could have material to review that applies in general cases, some preliminary ideas about the engineering plans, and then hold an actual two-way discussion. Once the plans are drawn, they would distribute the plans to the residents, preferably with a descriptive summary, such as “We’re going to repave large sections of the road, except at the most trafficked intersections where we want to leave the failing patches; we’re going to tear out the sidewalks and curbing and put in new sidewalks and curbing in approximately the same places; we’re going to cut down all large trees and allow the contractor to bill the city for trees that were planted two years ago as if they are new trees; and we will pave over any existing space around trees that allows rainwater to reach the tree roots.” Actually, I guess the plans are clear without a descriptive summary.

It’s not the ultimate decisions that are the failure point. It’s not even the lack of imagination. It’s the lack of communication and the lack of care, as if the city is a slumlord and we are all just tenants. Local democracy doesn’t need to feel like that.

And sometime in the next couple of days, I need to decide whether to make the tree warden happy, or hold a line against the city engineer’s office’s miserable attitude. I wish I could do both.


Anonymous said...

Could you talk to the Tree Warden to get advice about how to take a stand against the City Engineer's Office without hosing him?

Michael said...

I'm not sure. The folks I know who have been fighting for years to get a saner street tree policy don't seem to believe that the tree warden is an ally. On the other hand, they also don't seem to believe that he's reachable at all outside of public meetings, and yet there he was on our porch.