Tree removal plans lead to charges of lies, cover-up
With anger over tree removal a theme at City Council meetings for months, councillor and vice mayor Henrietta Davis took pains Tuesday to explain why Bradford pear trees are scheduled to be cut down in Cambridgeport.
Her efforts — questioning Commissioner Lisa Peterson, of the Public Works Department, ensuring the decision was backed by independent arborists and reporting to constituents via e-mail — were met with more anger and skepticism.
“We are not impressed with covering up for the wrongful actions of the city,” said Judy Johnson, of the Cambridge Tree Stewards citizens group, in a response to Davis. “Your questions to Lisa Peterson were not the questions we want to ask. We do not believe the lies in the reports claiming the trees are damaged and have to come down.”
The citizens who wrote back, including Johnson, Carol Bankerd and Carolyn Shipley, a Laurel Street landscaper, spoke of a February hearing at which city arborist David Lefcourt said two trees had to come down because they threaten the foundation of a house on Gilmore Street in Cambridgeport, a cul-de-sac by Russell E. Hoyt Field. In May — the same month councillors Leland Cheung and Craig Kelley filed an order seeking review of the entire tree-culling process — the number of trees had grown to four, they said, and “wounding” was blamed. Later, they said, Lefcourt explained that the trees were unstable and could fall down.
Peterson confirmed that, Davis said in her e-mail, and noted that two certified arborists backed Lefcourt’s opinion that the trees were at the end of their 30-year life cycle and “unhealthy.”
“Pruning would be a temporary solution, maybe for a month or two, but would severely disfigure the trees,” Davis said in explaining Peterson’s opinion.
“I’m sorry to see that some people are upset about this case,” Davis said. “I wanted to assure myself that everything practical was being done to preserve them … This is a tough situation. Many members of the public have grown attached to these trees and their preservation. Yet safety is an important issue as well. I’m concerned that with many severe storms lately, the city has to be increasingly vigilant about trees that are vulnerable.”
The roots of doubt
But with three different reasons for taking out the trees, Shipley said, “how can anyone have any confidence in [Lefcourt’s] judgment? How can anyone have confidence in his qualifications for this position of tree warden?”
While the outside arborists confirmed Lefcourt’s opinion, she was wary that their confirmation came after his opinion had been issued.
“The fact is that David Lefcourt condemned the trees because they would damage the foundation of the … house, not for any other reason. No one in the city wants to admit that. However, there are witnesses to the February hearing,” Shipley said. “All of the communications from [City Manager Robert W. Healy and Peterson] are just to cover up what actually happened and what actually said. Since most of us were at the hearings, we are not impressed.”
Johnson agreed the new report cited by Davis contained “lies.”
“We believe that this whole issue is regarding [a] new foundation,” she said. “And nothing can change that fact.”
The trees would likely be replaced, Davis said, but this also failed to impress Bankerd, Johnson and Shipley. They said the loss of grown trees would affect the environment for 15 to 20 years — cooling less and causing more use of air conditioners, for instance, as well as absorbing less water during storms and leading to more flooding — as replacement trees grew.
“We are losing our mature tree canopy at too fast a rate,” Shipley said.
Bankerd urged a stay for the trees until a new hearing could be held, but Davis’ e-mail referred only to plans for an Environment Committee meeting in the fall about the tree-removal process. An Aug. 9 meeting scheduled for the same purpose has been canceled, and with the next council meeting not being held until Aug. 2, there is no official word on the policy order filed by Cheung and Kelley on the same topic.
Davis leads the Environment Committee. Kelley is on it, as is councillor Sam Seidel.
This post was updated July 29 to correct Shipley’s address and the residents’ attendance at a February hearing. Shipley has since explained that neither she nor Johnson were at that hearing, although language in group e-mails indicated they were.