My Turn: Trees or utility belts for Berkshire Gas?

  • Chicoine

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Trees never cease to amaze me. With their ability to cool our homes in the summer, soak up rain during storms, and increase our property values, trees are real powerhouses. Trees help provide us good health and well-being and they feed and shelter song birds and pollinators.

Trees planted in public places benefit all citizens. A modest investment in planting and maintaining public trees today is paid back a hundredfold or more in the lifetime of values trees provide us. Throughout Massachusetts, municipalities are planting more public trees, understanding the multiple benefits trees provide communities and understanding that trees are on the front line of defense in the face of rising temperatures and more intense periods of rain.

In Greenfield though, something quite different is happening. Our public tree belts, the grassy strips between streets and sidewalks, are being turned into utility belts for Berkshire Gas. Mature, healthy trees that are in our tree belts are being cut down and tree belts trenched for gas lines.

Norwood Street is not the only street where this has been considered. Other tree belts have been converted to utility belts in the past couple of years and Berkshire Gas has filed its intent with Mass. Departmente of Utilities to do the same on Cleveland Avenue, Conway, Elm, Grove, Hasting, Wells and West Streets in 2018.

It is important for Berkshire Gas to fix leaky gas lines, but it can accomplish this without ruining our tree belts.

How has the city come to determine that converting tree belts into utility belts is good for its citizens? And how is it that the DPW has adopted a “policy” of no more trees planted in tree belts, though this is in direct opposition to our tree ordinance? The ordinance provides the city “standards for the protection, preservation, resilience and improvement of Greenfield’s urban forest to provide for the health, safety and general welfare of the residents by allowing appropriate shade and ornamental trees to be planted within the public right-of-way.”

Our tree ordinance is not the only document that guides our city in matters related to trees and the well-being of its residents. Greenfield’s Comprehensive Sustainable Master Plan provides strategies that are a reflection of Greenfield’s desire to create a more sustainable community and that guide our policies. Our Master Plan calls for increasing trees along streets and for pedestrians, using trees as “green infrastructure” and maintaining a healthy and diverse public tree population.

A 2014 tree inventory (available at www.greenfieldtreecommittee.org) found that over 50 percent of tree belt trees in the city’s most populated area are Norway maples, many of which are in decline due to old age. A 2018 re-inventory revealed that a whopping 18 percent of trees inventoried in 2014 have already been cut down. Few have been replaced, as is required by our tree ordinance. As our public tree population is rapidly declining, there is no systematic plan for replacing public trees. Unless our city changes course, residents will lose out, with declining property values, loss of neighborhood character and loss of the multitude of benefits trees provide.

Trees that are being planted by the city are primarily planted on private property using public funds. In some cases, there is simply no room on a very skinny tree belt for a tree and, in that case, planting a tree on private property makes sense. But private property owners can choose to neglect or cut down trees planted with public money. And, while planting trees in all kinds of places – public, private, parks, tree belts and more – throughout city is a fantastic idea, planting trees with public money solely on private property is not. The city is essentially eliminating its public tree population through this practice.

I urge the city of Greenfield to continue to commit itself to being resilient in as many ways as possible. Planting and maintaining our public street trees is one tangible way in which Greenfield can show its citizens and all who visit our city that we understand the value of trees and that we want Greenfield to continue to be a great place to live and to visit. Let’s ensure that trees planted on public tree belts and in other public areas are healthy and plentiful so that they can provide us many benefits. I urge the city to halt practices that go against our Tree Ordinance and our Sustainable Master Plan. Let’s instead take positive and intentional steps toward the health and resilience of our public trees and our community.

Mary Chicoine holds a master’s degree in sustainable landscape design and planning and is a lifelong naturalist who loves to spend her spare time gardening, paddling, backpacking and exploring the outdoors.