Note: This posting is being updated in early April, 2016, because the Office of the Schenectady City Engineer has apparently revived a plan that would result in removing virtually all mature trees from the City’s right-of-way (between sidewalk and curb) when replacing sidewalks, regardless of the health and stature of a particular tree, as it did on North Ferry Street in 2008. [see photo to the right] When the issue first came up in 2010, in the context of repaving Washington Avenue in the Stockade, a combination of resident opposition and strong Gazette editorials (described and linked here and here) prevented the unwarranted attack on a valuable portion of our urban forest and the beauty and history it embodies.
- The preference of the Engineer’s Office for the North Ferry Street process was defended and clarified in a series of emails, on March 22, 2016, between the author of this posting and an assistant civil engineer. Fear of liability due to a tree being weakened by root trimming or damage during repaving or repair was given as the primary reason for the tree removal policy. And, see “Update from Infrastructure Committee,” Stockade Spy, March 2016, at 6.
- update: The May 2018 Stockade Spy, at 2, after discussion with City Engineers, reported this exaggerated warning:“Once a tree root begins to interfere with sidewalks, little can be done. When the roots are cut to level the sidewalk, the tree nearly always fails within a few years.”
Like a zombie with a chainsaw, the issue of needless deforestation has returned to threaten one of our most treasured Schenectady resources, its existing urban forest, with scores of fine street tree arrays and canopies that are the envy of many other cities. More than ever, those who know the environmental, aesthetic, social, economic, and historic value of our irreplaceable “old” urban forest need to come together to shape and achieve passage and implementation of a Tree Preservation Policy for Schenectady, with street trees removed only if dead, dying or dangerous. Our efforts should be nonpartisan and span all segments of our community. Our success will be felt & appreciated for generations; our failure to act will leave us all immeasurably poorer. [For the web portal to Save Our Schenectady Trees see http://tinyurl.com/SOStrees ]
- There are photo collages showing the effects of the existing deforestation policy and what we have to lose if we let it continue on other streets, in the first two Appendices at the end of this posting. Views of other street scenes from around the City will soon be added.
Original Posting, with updates:
The City of Schenectady’s skimpy reply to a Freedom of Information [FOIL] request that I submitted on April 15, 2010, concerning the repaving of Washington Avenue and the effects on its trees, was telling. It demonstrated that Schenectady has no general rules or guidelines concerning the preservation of trees that are affected by the actions of a City agency, or of private persons fulfilling a City contract. Similarly, there are no rules with regard to the impact on the City’s historic districts, where even minor changes in building façades or street scenes are usually banned when other reasonable alternatives exist. [Click here to see the text of my FOIL request and discussion of the City’s response.]
Not only are there no laws on the books, the preservation of our valuable mature trees is not mentioned in the Schenectady Comprehensive Plan 2020, which repeats (at 86 of the Community Profile section) the recommendations made in the 2003 Tree Master Plan for the City of Schenectady. The Tree Master Plan was commissioned by ReTree Schenectady, which is “dedicated to the planting, care, and conservation of current and future generations of trees in the City of Schenectady.” Nonetheless, preservation of existing trees is not among the eight recommendations identified in the Master Plan. One of the recommendations is, however, to “Remove or trim older trees in poor condition.”
– above is the endangered tree canopy of Washington Avenue; our website’s original Masthead showed the equally endangered trees at the west end of Front St. —
This is a strange situation for a City which is so proud of its Historic Districts (especially the Stockade) and of it’s designation as a Tree City, USA, and which has so much to lose if it practices thoughtless or inadvertent deforestation. In the June 18, 2010, Schenectady Gazette, then-Commissioner of General Services Carl Olsen said he expected the planning that was delaying repaving [negotiation with Washington Ave. residents on saving our trees] would be useful for further historic district paving projects, and he wants the residents to be pleased with the end result. See our post, “No. Ferry St. lessons said to cause repaving delays” (June 18, 2010), which has photos of No. Ferry street stripped of its mature shade trees; and the Schenectady Gazette article “Sidewalk talks delay paving of Washington Avenue in Schenectady” (by Kathleen Moore, June 18, 2010; subscription needed for access).
– No. Ferry St. stripped of its mature trees due to repaving (2010) –
When this post was originally written, in June 2010, we did not know that Mayor Gary McCarthy would stall repaving the Stockade section of Washington Avenue until a week or so before the Stockade-athon Race ran the full length of that street for the first time, in November 2014. The sidewalks were and remain untouched by the City. Thus, the six years since then-Commissioner Olsen voiced optimism about achieving a result pleasing to historic district residents clearly did not produce a better process than the one rejected by the community in 2010. Instead, in early 2016, we again face the threat of North-Ferry-like “clearcutting” of mature trees in the right-of-way between curb and sidewalk (leaving existing small, unthreatening replacement trees in place, and replacing the mature trees with similar “appropriate” trees). Furthermore, eight years after “appropriate” species of trees were planted as substitutes for the felled trees on No. Ferry, it is clear that the new trees will never bring the aesthetic and practical benefits of mature shade trees.
Rather than achieving a better process that might salvage a large part of our streetscape urban forest, the City has brought back the specter of blocks stripped of healthy shade trees, with homely tangles of utility wires made ever more apparent, and residents, strollers and cafe diners seeking relief from unfiltered sunlight. Adding to our concern is the fact that the very people we would expect to lead the search and fight for better policy choices in our historic district, the leaders of the Stockade Association [SA], appear to be acquiescing in the tree removal policy, and even abetting tree removal by starting a sidewalk condition survey. [See “Update from Infrastructure Committee,” Stockade Spy, March 2016, at 6, for discussion of sidewalk issues, such as the preference of the Engineer’s Office for the No. Ferry Street process, and the Association leaders’ apparent acceptance.] The SA sidewalk survey is taking place despite the City Engineer cautioning that if they receive direct information about particular sidewalks needing repair or replacement, they will be forced to issue citations requiring immediate correction of the problem by the property owner.
In 2010, this webpost called for “study, consideration and creation of an explicit policy on preserving our mature trees — by passing legislation, promulgating regulations, and/or issuing an executive order.” And, we noted that “Many other wise counties, cities, towns and historic district commissions have already done so.” Currently (April 2016), the City Administration is suggesting there is no urgency, because it has no budget for sidewalk repairs (despite all the bragging about large influxes of casino-related revenues). This fiscal situation could change at any time, but may nonetheless give concerned citizens time to put together a coalition supporting a Tree Preservation Policy for Schenectady.
HISTORIC DISTRICTS: Although a tree-preservation policy is needed for the City’s entire urban forest, it is especially appropriate and necessary for its historic districts. The City’s Zoning Law, Article VIII of Chapter 264 of the Schenectady Code, gives as the purpose of our Historic District legislation to (among other things, with emphases added):
▪ Safeguard the heritage of the City of Schenectady by preserving resources in the city that represent or reflect elements of its cultural, social, economic, political and architectural history.
▪ Protect and enhance the attractiveness of such historic resources to home buyers, visitors, shoppers and residents and thereby provide economic benefits to the city and its citizens.
▪ Conserve and improve the value of property within Historic Districts.
▪ Foster, encourage and advise the preservation, restoration and rehabilitation of structures, areas and neighborhoods.
▪ Promote the use of Historic Districts for the education, enjoyment and welfare of the citizens of the city.
▪ Foster civic pride in the beauty and history of the past as represented in the Historic Districts.
A tree preservation policy can help achieve many of the City’s Historic preservation goals. As seen in excerpts from our Municipal Code, §264-74(B), printed below as Appendix Five, the Schenectady Historic Commission has the power to investigate and report upon matters before the City boards and departments, and to undertake surveys and studies, and make resultant proposals for regulations and special conditions and restrictions, “as may be appropriate to serve the purposes of this article.” Importantly, to assist the Commission, it may “may retain such specialists, consultants or experts to aid in its duties and to pay for their services and call upon available City staff for technical advice.” It is our hope that the members of the Historic Commission, with assistance from the staff of the planning and Engineering departments, will play an important role formulating, advocating and eventually implementing a Tree Preservation Policy for our City’s historic districts, with any such policy serving as a model for a City-wide tree preservation policy.
As the City of Tacoma, Washington, states on its Tree Removal webpage:
STREET TREE REMOVAL: for trees growing in the right-of-way, between the curb and sidewalk:
Tacoma’s urban forest is a valuable asset, and all trees on public property are protected. Trees provide increasing benefits as they grow, and mature trees are an asset that requires decades to replace. Tacoma carefully considers each and every request to remove a street tree, and encourages tree planting, regular tree maintenance, and alternatives to tree removal except where no viable alternative exists. Street trees can only be removed if they meet the criteria of being dead, dying, or dangerous. Conditions that do not warrant removal include the tree dropping fruit or leaves, the tree being perceived as too tall or making too much shade, or the cost of routine maintenance.
The City of Portland, Oregon, also has a multi-faceted Urban Forestry mission, including a program to designate protected Heritage Trees, special protection for trees in a number of over-lay historic districts, such as King’s Hill, and provisions to allow a ramp to be built when the grade of the sidewalk is elevated over existing roots that cannot be cut and removed (see p. 10 – 11). A Portland Street Removal brochure explained:
Benefits of the Urban Forest
Portland’s urban forest is a valuable functional and aesthetic asset that is vital to the livability of our community. . . . Trees soften and beautify the city landscape, offer habitat for wildlife, and provide essential ecosystem services such as capturing runoff, removing air pollutants and CO2, dampening noise, and modifying temperature extremes. The regular care and maintenance required by urban trees is a small investment relative to the large returns they provide – for publicly owned trees, less than $1 invested returns over $3 in benefits.
A City interested in attracting visitors to its historic districts (or business section) should also pay attention to the Clarksburg Historic District [Montgomery County, Maryland] Streetscape Concepts Study (at 26, sec. 2.7). It makes this (obvious but often ignored) statement:
“Street trees and landscaping can greatly enhance the appearance of a streetscape. They can also provide shade and greenery that makes a place more walkable and inviting for pedestrians.”
– Similar points are made at the Colorado Trees organization’s website, in the piece “Urban Forests Can Improve Economic Sustainability”, which notes that trees attract customers and tourists and cause them to linger longer. It also makes this broader point:
“The scope and condition of a community’s trees and, collectively, its urban forest, is usually the first impression a community projects to its visitors. A community’s urban forest is an extension of its pride and community spirit.”
As for property values, a community group in the Sydney, Australia region notes:
“Property values increase when there are visually beautiful street trees within view. . . . If you want to immediately lower the value of your property, get the council to remove a large tree from outside your property.”
Furthermore, TreeLink: The Urban Forestry Resource is a comprehensive source for information and studies about urban trees. It cites U.S. Forestry Service studies which have found:
- A tree can return up to $2.70 for each $1 of community investment;
- healthy, mature trees add an average of 10 percent to a property’s value; and,
- nationally, the 60 million street trees have an average value of $525 per tree.
For the above reasons, and many others, the City of Los Angeles, CA, announced that “appropriate planning, planting and maintenance of Street Trees provide the residence of the City economic, social, environmental, ecological and aesthetic benefits.” Its City Council therefore concluded that a uniform policy on the maintenance and enhancement of Street Trees is necessary, and (among other things), it:
RESOLVED that the City Council directs City Departments to review their relevant documents and procedures with regards to these Street Tree Policies, to incorporate these Policies into planning, operations, and permitting decisions, and to arrange presentations of the Department’s revisions affecting Street Trees to the Board of Public Works within six months.
According to Operation STOMP, in the first six years of its Healthy Trees, Smooth Sidewalks program, the City of Los Angeles “repaired more than 400 miles of sidewalks, preserving more than 52,000 trees that would have been removed otherwise.”
The City of Schenectady needs such a uniform policy regarding the preservation of healthy mature trees. The policy should cover its own departments and contractors, as well as private citizens and property owners, and should insist that, unless a tree is dead, dying or dangerous, alternatives to tree removal must be fully considered and employed, except where no viable alternative exists.
Note: Los Angeles and other cities, citizens’ groups, and academics, have looked into the issue of saving trees that are causing the disturbance of sidewalks. There clearly are many alternatives that must be considered before taking down healthy trees. [update: See our posting “sidewalks vs. trees” (April 24, 2016)]
For example, see:
- The City of Los Angeles has instituted special restrictions against the removal of any tree in specified Cultural Heritage Locations (including the requirement of a public hearing with regard to each designated tree), and also designates “street trees of significance,” stating that “The trees may be of importance due to their size, species, appearance, growth habits, flowers, or a combination of these characteristics. The City should be proud of these trees and the flavor and character that it provides to the neighborhoods in which they are planted.”
- Tree Guidelines for San Joaquin Valley Communities (March 1999) This excellent, comprehensive study is excerpted at length in our posting “why worry about our large street trees“, and in “sidewalks vs. trees“.
- Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC), a nonprofit organization in Washington State, provides a very useful resource on its website, reproducing the monograph “Sidewalk and Roots: Mitigating the Conflict—An Overview” by Gordon Mann of Auburn, California, which states: “[W]henever possible, we try to retain the existing larger trees while making a repair or create better space for larger trees in the future,” and goes on to present descriptions of alternative and innovative solutions to tree removal, mentioning the advantages and disadvantages of each process or material.
- Springfield, Oregon, Street Trees Policy (Engineering Design Manual, Sec. 6.02.1 Existing Tree) The Policy requires the use of Best Management Practices “to save existing trees” and to minimize the stress of construction and repaving on trees. For example, two BMPs that must be used are: A. During initial planning phases of street design, determine which trees should be saved. If 2/3 of the root system can be protected from construction, the tree shall be considered for saving. And, ” F. Design[ing] sidewalks of variable width, elevation, and direction to help save an existing tree.” The Springfield Street Tree Policy declares that “The trees saved should be an asset to the neighborhood before and after street construction.”
- Operation Stomp and Save Our Nassau County Trees – “A community-based, grassroots organization [with 1400 members] based in Long Island, New York, dedicated to preserving the thousands of trees presently unprotected and at-risk lining countless County and Local Roads throughout Nassau County.” See their Fact Sheet, including a “green” Sidewalk Repair Methods page, and a Video. Contact Information: (516) 730-7619 | OperationSTOMP@gmail.com
- Also see, e.g., Terrecon’s Rubbersidewalks; a similar product at Rubberway; and “New Rubber Sidewalks Tested in 60 Cities” (NPR, August 4, 2006).
Conclusion: As the cursory survey above shows, there are many models available to our city and community leaders, the Historic Preservation Commission, property owners and other residents, as the City studies the issues, gathers facts and opinions, and promulgates a tree preservation policy and related laws. This process, therefore, could take months, not years, and should be used to protect our healthy trees before ill-conceived deforestation causes literally irreparable damage. In the meantime, I hope a Deforestation Moratorium will be put in place voluntarily by the Mayor or through City Council action.
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Below you will find several appendices spotlighting important factors to consider in evaluating the need and appropriateness of a Tree Preservation Policy.
- Before and After Comparisons, shown in two photo collages, one of North Ferry Street and one with Other Examples.
- What we Have to Lose. photo-collages of at-risk trees, scenes and canopies, on various Schenectady Streets, starting in the Stockade, with additional neighborhoods to be added.
- American with Disabilities Act is No Bar to Tree Preservation.
- Is Fear of Liability for Spared Trees with Trimmed Roots a sufficient reason for a blanket policy of removing all affected trees in the City’s right of way?
- Powers and duties of the Schenectady Historic Commission.
. . click on each collage for a larger version: [above] North Front Street Before & After Deforestation; and [below] Other Stockade Examples of Lost Trees . .
What We Have to Lose
(click on each collage for a larger version; more samples to follow)
The Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] does not mandate tree removal when the City or a property owner is repairing or replacing a sidewalk, or the City is repaving a road, and the roots of a tree are involved. ADA has been mentioned by staff in the City Engineer office as a justification for removing trees when repairing sidewalks or repaving roads. That simply is not the case (at least from my perspective as both a layman reading federal guidelines on the matter, as well as a retired lawyer). For one thing, ADA only applies where State or Federal funds are being used, which may not be the case in Schenectady. In addition, ADA appears to require curb-cuts that allow handicap access, but not the “smoothing” of all broken or disrupted sidewalks in residential areas.
More specifically, the Sidewalk Repair Guidelines to which I was referred by an Assistant City Engineer not only do not mandate tree removal, they do not mention it among the alternatives when sidewalks are disrupted by tree roots. Instead, the Guideline says that you either re-route around the tree (which may not be feasible in many places in the Stockade, due to narrow sidewalks), or you ramp the sidewalk. It also has a paragraph praising all the benefits trees bring to residential neighborhoods, including a canopy-effect that we obviously cannot achieve with the skinnier, short trees, that are now used as replacement trees in urban areas.
The Assistant Engineer also insisted:
“I know you say that the little trees ruin the historic feel but if you give them 5-10 years they will be mature and give the same feel as the larger trees with minimal burden of damage.”
“Same feel” may be a subjective experience, but it is difficult for most of us to see the “treescape” on No. Ferry Street eight years after the replacement trees were planted, or the cherry trees that have been growing well over a dozen years on Washington Avenue and other blocks of the Stockade, and come to that conclusion. The replacement trees might be seen as “appropriate” because their roots grow deeper and their tops will never scrape utility lines, but they are not genetically fated to ever form canopies over streets or grow to majestic proportions. [Update: see our posting “N. Ferry St. then and now” (April 22, 2016), and click on the collage at the head of this paragraph.]
Copied below are sections of the FHWA/DOT sidewalk guidelines that the Office of the City Engineer believes are relevant to the ADA and sidewalk design (emphases added), but which refute the need for automatic tree removal:
Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access
4.3.2 Changes in levels
Changes in level are vertical elevation differences between adjacent surfaces. Changes in level are relatively common on sidewalks, particularly in residential areas.
Changes in level that currently exist should be addressed through a maintenance program. Whenever possible, the cause of the change in level should be removed. For example, if the cause of the change in level is an overgrown tree root, the sidewalk should be rerouted around the tree with additional right-of-way or ramp up and over the roots. (Section 4.4 contains information on how to plant trees so that they will not push up through the sidewalk.) If rerouting is not a viable solution, changes of level should be ramped to provide a smooth surface. The following ADAAG guidelines for buildings should be used when addressing changes in level for sidewalks:
- Small changes in level up to 6.4 mm (0.25 in) may remain vertical and without edge treatment;
- A beveled surface with a maximum slope of 50 percent should be added to small changes in level between 6.4 mm (0.25 in) and 13 mm (0.5 in); and
- Changes in level such as curbs that exceed 13 mm (0.5 in) should be ramped or removed.
4.4 The impact of trees on the sidewalk corridor
Trees are generally installed because they improve the pedestrian experience along the street. Trees serve as a visual and auditory buffer between pedestrians and automobile traffic. They also improve the aesthetic appearance of a street and provide shade or shelter in warm or windy regions. In urban areas, trees provide needed green space and break up the monotony of the public right-of-way. In some residential areas, large trees that extend over the street may have a traffic calming effect by creating a sense of enclosure. According to urban design research, visual enclosure is required to transform streets into pedestrian places, which results in increased comfort for pedestrians and decreased comfort for speeding motorists (Institute of Transportation Engineers, 1999).
Figure 4-40. If tree roots cannot be removed, the sidewalk should be rerouted around the tree.
Is Fear of Liability for Spared Trees with Trimmed Roots a sufficient reason for a blanket policy of removing all affected trees in the City’s right of way? In an email on March 22, 2016, when I pointed out the weakness in his ADA argument and rejected the assertion that fixing sidewalks was an adequate reason for a blanket removal policy, Assistant City Engineer Peter Knutson ended up responding that:
My job with the city is to limit liability. Even if one in a thousand trees has the potential to become a liability, that would leave the city open to hundreds if not thousands of potential lawsuits with the hundreds of thousands of trees in the city right of way. As I said, if a property owner wants to accept liability for a tree we can cross that bridge when/if it happens. Until I am advised otherwise by corporation council any tree that I feel had been impacted negatively by any construction will be removed.
My reply at the time was that it seemed unlikely there would be thousands of potentially liability-creating trees, if a variety of mitigation alternatives were employed, noting that, for example, “spared” trees could be monitored for any signs of weakness and removed later if they appear to have become dangerous. Given the very real economic (e.g., reduction in housing values, curtailing of tourism), environmental and aesthetic losses from removing a significant number of mature trees from our street-scape, it seems clear that the City needs a more detailed assessment of actual liability risk (numbers of trees and amount of likely damage, as well as likelihood of being found negligent for prudently choosing to err on the side of preservation when deciding the balance of public interest).
Without a thorough, and open, process that weighs the likely costs and benefits, with input from experts and the public, throwing away so much history, beauty, environmental, and economic benefits behind the skimpy fig leaf of potential liability does not come close to responsible, wise (or even smart) guardianship of our City’s resources.
Relevant Powers of the Schenectady Historic District Commission.
Duties and powers. The Commission shall have the following powers and duties:. .(2) Investigate and report. The Commission may investigate, report, testify and recommend to the Planning Commission, the Board of Zoning Appeals, the City Council and any City department or official on matters, permits, authorizations and other actions that affect buildings, structures, sites and places within an historic district. The Zoning Officer shall serve written notice to the Commission Chairman of matters, permits and authorizations scheduled to come before the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Planning Commission and the City Council and any City department or official that may affect an historic district.(4) Surveys and studies. The Commission may undertake the survey and study of neighborhoods, areas, sites, places, buildings and structures that have historic, architectural, cultural or aesthetic value. Pursuant to such study and survey, the Commission may propose regulations, special conditions and restrictions, including recommendations for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, as may be appropriate to serve the purposes of this article.(5) Retain specialists. The Commission may retain such specialists, consultants or experts to aid in its duties and to pay for their services, not exceeding, in all, the appropriation made for such purpose by the City Council. The Commission may call upon available City staff members, as well as other individuals, for technical advice.