Monday, May 27, 2024

A proposal to examine city rules on cutting down trees drew several angry residents to a Monday meeting of the City Council. During public comment they told councillors horror stories of healthy trees being removed by the city arborist and endorsed a review, later approved in a unanimous council vote.

“Recent disagreements have demonstrated the need for a clearer process,” said the politely worded policy order by councillors Leland Cheung and Craig Kelley, which now goes to City Manager Robert W. Healy so he can report back on

The number and prevalent patterns of tree hearings, removals, and keepings over the past five years;

Reasons trees have been kept or removed, with a clarification of considerations in the decision making process; and

A summary of the standards, guidelines and considerations the City Arborist adheres to in the decision making process.

“This is an issue that a lot of people in Cambridge care very strongly about,” Cheung said Monday. “There’s a lot of different opinions when a tree should be taken down and what the process is.”

But the roughly 10 people who spoke in support of the review seemed of one opinion: Aborist David Lefcourt and the Public Works employees working for him were taking down healthy trees and leaving dead ones up. And their reasoning for tree removal, as recounted by residents speaking publicly and for a cable television audience, was lacking.

At the least, how the department communicates — as suggested by the policy order — may need work.

The felling of 21 linden trees in January at the Museum of Science was brought up Monday as an example of why tree-removal policies need review in the city, although these trees were on state land. (Photo: Mark Jaquith)

“The city leapt to cut down all the trees on Wheeler Street,” said Sarah Diehl, a Wheeler Street resident. “I asked Mr. Lefcourt why. His answer was, ‘Since the city was paving the street, why not cut the trees down while we’re at it?’ He never said they were diseased or caused any danger. I found out he makes his recommendations for each tree picked to be cut down to one person: Mr. Healy. I was very surprised to hear this has been the policy … taxpayers, property owners and the trees deserve a better policy.”

Carolyn Shipley, a Lowell Street landscaper, said she learned by attending a tree removal hearing that “there are no guidelines for determining a tree is no longer viable and that the reasons for taking out the trees seemed to be interchangeable — or changeable.”

Chris Messina, a Western Avenue resident, led into a recitation of the Joyce Kilmer poem “Trees” by saying, “It’s always mystified me as to why across the city we have dead trees standing and I see live trees being cut down and toppled over.”

Jannah Murray said a tree more than 80 years old had been cut down recently by the city in front of her Fayerweather Street home. “After [saying] it was rotten, dead and had holes in it, the city workers stood around the huge stump and said, ‘Since we can’t put it back, we’ll give you a new one,” she said. “We kept a slab of the stump to make a beautiful table. There are no holes, it’s not rotten and it was so large I was not able to bring it in today. I wish I could have. You could have seen for yourself.”

Even School Committee member Fred Fantini, who was on hand to urge councillors to reverse layoffs of clerks in the school department, began his three minutes of public comment with a reference to the loss of 21 linden trees in January, months ahead of construction at the Charles River Dam. “When I saw the trees cut down at the Museum of Science, I almost wept,” Fantini said.

In that case, the city may not be to blame; Cambridge Community Television blogger Mark Jaquith says it’s state land, making the tree removal state Department of Conservation and Recreation business.

Among other actions, the council also approved a policy order by Tim Toomey rejecting again a bid for renting out, instead of selling, 168 units in a development at 303 Third St.; and another by Cheung asking the city manager to quickly figure out a way to let residents barbecue in city parks.

Update: The spelling of Mark Jaquith’s name has been corrected.