Weeping for willow’s demise

By Danielle Dreilinger
Boston, MA (November 30, 2008)- Zen monks have long asked: If a tree falls in a forest and no one sees it, does it make a sound? In Somerville’s urban forest, the answer is clear. It seems as if no tree falls without neighbors seeing- and raising a ruckus.


The owner of a huge willow on Thorndike Street had it cut down on Friday following the latest in a series of tree squabbles that have led the city to explore ways to increase protections on trees. Visible from the Linear Park bike path nearby, the willow had racked up at least three names – Belinda, Bertha, and Tim – and two songs by harpist Deborah Henson-Conant of Arlington. It towered over three-deckers, some of its branches as thick as a typical trunk.
The tree got a two-week stay of execution after neighbors came out to block the originally scheduled removal on Nov. 12. After that, they sprang into action, going so far as to bring in their own arborist for a second opinion in the pouring rain last Tuesday. Henson-Conant serenaded the tree Nov. 19 with the Arlington High School choir.
Smaller-scale opposition arose on Pearson Street when the city tried to take down a 25-year-old oak tree, Alderwoman Rebekah Gewirtz said.
Neighbors protesting a building project at 42 Craigie St. objected largely to the removal of numerous trees on the property and focused on possible damage to a 100-year-old elm. One person went in and made an inventory of the trees on the site. As a condition of zoning board approval, the developers had to agree to make “best efforts” to preserve the tree. Despite that, opponents have continued to be concerned that a new building would come too close to the tree, irreparably damaging its root system. Without trees, said Craigie Street opponent Maureen Barillaro in July, “it’s just so unappealing and ugly, and it just takes away from what makes your house comfortable.”
Gewirtz is leading an effort to create an ordinance to protect trees on city property. It would require a well-publicized hearing before the city took down a healthy public tree. If a private citizen requested the hearing, he or she would have to pay to advertise the hearing and – if the tree came down – replace the tree within a year. A committee would help advise the city on how to manage and maintain trees.
Progress hammering out the ordinance has been slow, though. The key dispute seems to concern healthy trees that damage private property.
Even as he planned to take down the willow on Thorndike Street last week, owner Joe Benoit of Boston said, “I love the tree.” Residents often point to the paradox that Somerville is at once “the most densely populated community in New England,” as the city’s website puts it, and an Arbor Day Foundation “Tree City USA.” Among other qualifications, a Tree City must spend at least $2 per capita on forestry programs. There are 90 in Massachusetts.
Mayor Joe Curtatone promised in his 2008 inaugural address to increase the number of living trees by 20 percent over the next four years. The city plans to undertake a complete inventory of public trees this spring, said Brad Arndt, coordinator of the city’s new Urban Forest Initiative. He estimated Somerville has 40,000 to 50,000 trees. The most common are Norway maples, now considered an invasive species.
Beyond aesthetic value, you can calculate an individual tree’s monetary value in filtering particulates and preventing stormwater runoff, Arndt said. “There is no question that urban trees can cause, in some cases, considerable damage,” Arndt said. The inventory aims to find good locations to plant new trees.
Greg Nadeau, a neighbor and “Belinda” fan, hoped the city would one day have an ordinance that covered privately owned trees as well. “I think it’s directly analogous to historic homes,” he said.
Benoit said he plans to plant a city-friendly replacement in the spring.
Related Resources:
Boston Globe- Weeping for willow’s demise