Tree protections & traffic calming

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In this issue:

  • Some key issues we are working on
  • Some important meetings and dates in the next month
  • Safety on our streets, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists; City traffic calming efforts
  • Tree Protection ordinance and zoning amendment before the City Council

Some key issues we are working on

In addition to the two issues discussed in this newsletter, the Somerville City Council has a bunch of important ordinances and issues before us which we will be working on and (I hope) passing in the next 4 ½ months.  I will be writing about these in upcoming newsletters.  Some of these key issues are:

  • the citywide zoning overhaul, which we have been working on now for five years;
  • a revised, strengthened Condominium Conversion Ordinance,
  • a revised strengthened Demolition Review Ordinance,
  • a new ordinance to regulate short-term rentals such as AirBNB (Those last three are in the Legislative Matters Committee, which I Chair;) and
  • many important environmental and open and green space issues in a variety of committees.
  • In addition, the Council will be considering Administration recommendations for appointments to important City boards such as the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and Somerville Redevelopment Authority, and
  • in June, the FY 2020 budget.
  • Of course, I will be continuing to do all I can to minimize the negative impacts of the Broadway/Ball Square Bridge closure, which will begin in three weeks.
  • And, I will continue to work closely with neighbors in many Ward 5 neighborhoods to try to impact as positively as possible redevelopment proposals that developers have brought to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Some important meetings and dates in the next month

Tuesday March 5, at 6 PM – Powderhouse Blvd Community Meeting about traffic calming and pedestrian safety, at the West Somerville Neighborhood School.  See https://www.somervillema.gov/events/2019/03/05/powder-house-blvd-community-meeting

Tuesday, March 12, at 6 PM – Public Hearings before the City Council Land Use Committee and the Planning Board on open space requirements for mid- and high-rise buildings, tree protection, the citywide zoning overhaul, and other zoning amendments, City Hall.  See https://www.somervillema.gov/events/2019/03/12/planning-board-and-city-councils-land-use-committee-joint-public-hearing

Wednesday, March 13, 6:30 PM - Green Line Extension public meeting to discuss Washington Street bridge closure, East Somerville Community School.  See https://www.somervillema.gov/events/2019/03/13/glx-public-meeting-discuss-washington-st-bridge-closure

Friday, March 22 – Broadway/Ball Square Bridge closes completely to all traffic for approximately one year.  (Closures to the Washington St and Medford St bridges will follow in April and July, respectively.)  For lots of information and details, see https://www.somervillema.gov/departments/green-line-extension

Wednesday, April 3, 6 PM – Public Hearing before the City Council Traffic and Parking Cmte in response to a petition signed by 350+ residents and submitted by the Pedestrian and Transit Advocacy Group, to accelerate traffic calming investmentsand improve coordination and oversight, City Hall.  (See below for a link to the petition and discussion.)

Thursday, April 4, 3 PM AND 6 PM, Public Hearings before the City Council Legislative Matters Cmte on a proposed home-rule petition to allow 16 & 17 year-old citizens to vote in municipal elections, City Hall.   

Safety on our streets, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists; City traffic calming efforts

The killing of 40-year-old Allison Donovan, a West Somerville resident and long-time public school teacher and administrator in Watertown, on Friday, February 8th by a hit-and-run driver in the crosswalk in front of the West Somerville Neighborhood School on Powderhouse Boulevard is an enormous tragedy. It has unleashed a huge outpouring of constructive anger about safety on our streets, especially for pedestrians, but also for bicyclists.  (At least one other pedestrian has been killed in a traffic accident in Somerville in the last few years).

Just a week later, a bicyclist, Paula Sharaga, 69 years old, a Cambridge resident and beloved Brookline children’s librarian, with ties to Havurat Shalom in the Somerville Jewish community, was run over and killed by a cement truck in Boston.  There have been two cyclist deaths in Cambridge over the past couple of years, but so far, none in Somerville that I am aware of. 

Sadly, I believe it is only a matter of time before a bicyclist, and another pedestrian, gets killed in a traffic accident in Somerville.  That is the reality in which we live. One astonishing statistic indicates how dangerous our streets are: In 2017, in 46% of crashes, the pedestrian hit was in a crosswalk (2018 City of Somerville spring Resistat presentation).  Please think about this next time you cross a street or drive or cycle through a crosswalk.  Despite public perception, crosswalks are not safe, so beware and be careful. Do not look at your phone while you are crossing a street!

As Chair of the City Council Traffic and Parking Committee, I have been working closely with Councilor-at-Large Stephanie Hirsch and the volunteer Somerville Pedestrian and Transit Advocacy Group on these issues for a year. Since I became Ward 5 Alderman in 2014, I have been advocating for traffic-calming improvements on dozens of Ward 5 streets and for more City resources devoted to traffic safety.  That’s because traffic calming and safety on our streets has been the #1 concern of Ward 5 residents during my tenure.

Since Allison Donovan was killed, we've received scores of emails from frightened residents & a superb petition from the Somerville Pedestrian and Transit Advocacy Group, signed by over 350 people, with a program for improvement in the safety of our streets that should serve as a guide for our City leaders. You can see the petition here:http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=2856&MediaPosition=&ID=20338&CssClass=

It's clear that the City needs to do a LOT more to calm traffic and protect pedestrians and bicyclists. These changes would also make driving safer for motorists, certainly an important consideration.  Now it's time to get the Mayor, the Administration and the rest of the City Council to step up to the plate and commit significant new resources (i.e. $$$$$$) to staffing and infrastructure for traffic calming and pedestrian and bicyclist safety.  If we are going to achieve our Somervision goal to get a lot more people to walk, bike and take public transit, we need to make sure people don’t get killed while doing so.

When the City Council discussed the above petition, two City Councilors said that they would not commit to support additional spending for traffic calming because they need to consider the entire budget and other priorities.  To me, this is a matter of life and death, but clearly some Councilors don’t see it that way.  In a City budget of over $240 million there are plenty of non-essential expenditures that could be cut if necessary to generate these funds.  I will identify those budget cuts during our budget discussions in June, if that is necessary to raise $1 million for traffic calming.

Several large public community meetings are being planned for March and April, where people will be able to speak out with their concerns & ideas. I urge you to attend those meetings and/or to write to the Mayor (mayor@somervillema.gov) and all City Councilors (CityCouncil@somervillema.gov) and share your concern about pedestrian and bicyclist safety and urge them to commit significantly more City resources to making our streets safer for all users.

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Tree Protection ordinance and zoning amendment before the City Council

There’s been a great deal written and said about the loss of so many trees on public and private land in Somerville over the past few years.  There is a widespread belief in Somerville that City government has not done enough to protect and sustain our trees, and that is certainly my opinion too.  We can and must do better.  Progress in staffing up protect and better care for our trees has been agonizingly slow.  It took years of advocacy to get the Mayor to hire an arborist.  Hiring additional desperately-needed tree staff has also been slow.  It took over a year from when the City Council created it for the Administration to appoint residents to the new Urban Forestry Committee.  Meanwhile, other government agencies (the MBTA on the GLX commuter rail corridor) and private contractors (Cedar Street and Beacon Street) are cutting far more trees than is necessary due to a lack of City oversight and advocacy to protect those trees. 

I’ve been working on developing an ordinance to protect trees on private property for three years now.  Given all the problems the City has had with the trees the City controls on our own public land, it did not seem to me a high priority to regulate trees on private property. I hesitated for years exactly because some said the City should get its own house in order first before interfering with private property.

However, after a half-dozen private properties got clearcut by developers over the past six months, I decided that I couldn't wait any longer.  One of those properties, 21 Eastman Road, is a block from my house.  This is a large (at 12,000 square feet, huge by Somerville standards), steeply-sloped parcel that had a tiny single-family house (since demolished) at the top.  One day last August, the developers cut down a dozen mature trees on the property, most of which had been there for decades.  The outpouring of grief from neighbors was one of the saddest things I have experienced as an elected official.

After developers clearcut trees on several properties in Ward 2, I worked intensely for a month with Ward 2 Councilor JT Scott and resident Chris Dwan to develop and submit a Tree Protection Ordinance and also an amendment to Somerville’s zoning code to stop developers from clearcutting trees on private property.  We consulted with, and received help from, Dan Bartman in the City Planning Department and Jason Grossfield in the City Solicitor’s Office.  There will be a Public Hearing on the zoning amendment on Weds, March 12, 6 PM in City Hall. Anyone can testify and/or submit written comments by emailing CityCouncil@somervillema.gov and Planning@somervillema.gov.

If you're interested in protecting and preserving trees, I suggest you start by reading an article we wrote in the February 13 Somerville Times, “Legal Protections for Somerville’s Trees.”  The article is copied into this newsletter below, or you can see it here http://www.thesomervilletimes.com/archives/89558.  It provides some background information and explains our approach to protecting trees on private property.  You can find our proposed Tree Preservation Ordinance here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?Frame=&MeetingID=1726&MediaPosition=&ID=20336&CssClass=

Our proposed zoning ordinance for the protection of significant trees can be found here: http://somervillecityma.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?ID=20252&highlightTerms=tree%20protection

Legal Protections for Somerville's Trees

Published on February 13, 2019 in The Somerville Times

By Chris Dwan, Resident; Mark Niedergang, City Councilor, Ward 5; and JT Scott, City Councilor, Ward 2

Somerville developers take notice: preliminary protections are now in place for trees on private land in Somerville. If you intend to cut a tree greater than six inches in diameter on private property, you may be required to plant replacements, pay into a replacement fund, or both.

At the January 24 Board of Aldermen meeting, we submitted a Tree Protection amendment to Somerville’s zoning ordinance. Our primary goal with this was to stop developers from clear-cutting trees on properties that they plan to redevelop. Our ultimate goal is to empower residents and provide the incentives and funding to act meaningfully on the restoration of Somerville’s urban forest canopy.

Zoning laws can be enforced – if they are eventually passed – as of the date on which a public hearing on a proposed zoning amendment is “noticed” via an advertisement in the newspaper. For this amendment that date was Wednesday, February 6. If the proposed zoning law eventually passes, it would be retroactively effective as of that date.

This makes it a wise move, today, to join the conversation and help us to pass the right ordinance, rather than to clear-cut.

The text of the proposed zoning amendment is online at the city’s website. The Public Hearing will be on Wednesday, March 12, 6 PM in City Hall. Anyone can testify and/or submit written comments by emailing CityCouncil@somervillema.gov and Planning@somervillema.gov.

A new Tree Protection Ordinance

Based on advice from the Planning Department and the Solicitor’s Office, we will also submit a comprehensive revision of the city’s Tree Protection Ordinance this coming Thursday, February 14. This ordinance will, among other things, establish a system of permits for tree removal that will be both faster and simpler than the process of zoning review.

We based this work on similar regulations in neighboring cities and towns. We spoke to many residents and neighbors and worked with City staff to find a balance that respects property rights while slowing and reversing the tree losses of recent years. We look forward to public discussion and debate and fully expect corrections and improvements to the revised ordinance we have drafted.

Our goals with this revised ordinance are:

  • To clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Tree Warden and the City Arborist.
  • To leverage the newly created Urban Forestry Committee as a public forum for tree issues. The “Tree Hearings” required before street trees are removed will now be held as part of the public meetings of this committee. This will shine a light on what has been a murky process.
  • To bring resident voices, via the Urban Forestry Committee, into the conversation on how the city’s limited funds for tree care and planting should be prioritized and spent.
  • To create a system of permits that will prevent surprise clear-cuts, generate revenue from developers, and punish bad actors.

This is not a ban: Nothing in this proposed ordinance will prevent or even unduly delay a property owner who wants to cut some or all of the trees on their land. A completed permit application requires a plan showing which trees are to be removed and where new plantings will go. The application will also require a payment into the city’s “Tree Fund” to make up the difference between what is being cut and what is being planted.

To allow flexibility, the permit application will include an option to request a waiver of fees. These requests will be discussed publicly by the Urban Forestry Committee. Whether for financial hardship, because a tree is damaging a building, or for any reason at all, the option should be there.

Why this approach

The City Council has been vigorous in our response to the tree decimation of recent years. We have supported the Mayor in adding new City staff positions and funding, and we have issued dozens of board orders instructing the Administration to prioritize preservation of the City’s trees. While this was important, it has not yet turned the tide. With this ordinance, we are taking the next step.

In August 2018, Alderman Niedergang submitted a board order asking the City Solicitor to consider the policies of neighboring cities and towns and draft potential regulations on tree cutting on private property. Comments in this newspaper grew heated. One developer immediately razed a wooded lot on Spring Hill without waiting to see what the proposed ordinance might be. We realized that the public conversation required to create a good ordinance was going to create a real risk to hundreds of mature trees.

By submitting the zoning amendment first, trees on private property have some protections, and the City Council and the community can develop a fair and effective Tree Protection Ordinance without more trees being destroyed.

Striking a Balance

Trees are a public good, even when they are located on private property. Trees shade and cool all of us, not just the owner of the property where they stand. They increase property values while reducing energy consumption and providing privacy in our dense city. They protect air quality, sequester massive amounts of carbon, provide protection from glare and heat, and baffle noise, They reduce topsoil erosion and stormwater runoff, which means fewer flooded basements. At the same time, they provide habitats for wildlife, all while beautifying our city. Because these benefits of trees extend beyond the property line, the harm of cutting them down is felt beyond the property line.

In addition, many of the trees we are talking about protecting have grown in our city for 50, 75, and in some cases more than 100 years. They are remarkable survivors in their own right. People who say that we can plant saplings to replace mature trees neglect to point out that this means that those of us who live in Somerville today will live out our lives in a town of twigs rather than a tree city.

Please join the conversation, and help us to pass the right legislation on this important topic.


Sincerely,

Mark Niedergang

Ward 5 Councilor

617-629-8033

Mark@MarkNiedergang.com

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