Public Trees To Be Protected Here As of March 28 But What’s Next for the Majority of Trees—Those That Grow on Private Land?

​Permission of the Parks and Recreation Department, through a Tree Warden, will soon be required for anyone—including city officials themselves—to have healthy trees removed from City of Boston property. Getting that permission will require a well-publicized public hearing.               ​

An ordinance spelling out those and other new processes for City of Boston tree removal on its own properties—such as parks, school grounds, libraries and public housing—was passed unanimously by the Boston City Council on Dec. 13 and signed into law by Mayor Michelle Wu at the end of January. The public tree protection ordinance (TPO) will go into effect on March 28.               ​

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has long had a law regarding preserving “public shade trees” that is referenced and treated in the new Boston ordinance as a separate category of public trees from those on City property.               ​

The original draft TPO, that also regulated removing trees on private property, was first submitted and discussed by the Boston City Council in 2021. All Council members signed on to co-sponsor it within a short time.              

But the provisions that covered removal of private trees—which make up about 60 percent of the tree canopy here and represent the greatest losses of trees, according to the Parks Department—were dropped about a year ago.               ​

At a government operations committee hearing of the council it was decided to bifurcate the first ordinance to deal with regulating public trees first, to be followed by developing the potentially more controversial rules for private tree removal later.               ​

“Later” should be coming soon. ​Jamaica Plain has a 44 percent tree canopy, the largest of any Boston neighborhood. About eight acres of canopy were lost here between 2014 and 2019, according to City assessments               ​

Now that the public tree part of the TPO has passed into law, it’s time for Boston to revisit the most significant part of tree protection regulation—creating prior review of possible removal of trees on private land.              

​The original 2021 draft ordinance was similar to regulations on the books in quite a few cities and towns around the country, including Austin, Tex., Atlanta, Palo Alto (updated from original from 1951), Portland, Ore. and Seattle. Friends of Urban Forests lists about 50 cities and states that have official tree protections around the country on its website. Massachusetts cities that have TPOs governing private tree removal include Cambridge, Canton, Newton, Somerville, Salem and Wellesley.               ​

An extensive Urban Forest Plan (UFP), developed by the City of Boston with lots of community and expert participation over more than a year, and released in September, 2022, calls for regulations protecting trees as a critical action item within the first five years.              

​Since then, the Urban Forestry Division of the Parks Department expanded its workforce to care for thousands of trees and secured a grant of $11.4 million from the U.S. Forest Services Urban and Community Forestry Program, according to a press release from the City.              

​In an online poll of the UFP’s equity centered Community Advisory Board (CAB) in March, 2022, 85 percent of the 35 voting CAB members said they believe “the existing tree protection regulations need to be strengthened;” 54 percent said regulation of private tree removal should happen in “all instances;” 38 percent said “just during land development or construction projects.” Three percent were unsure.               ​No one said that “tree removal on private property shouldn’t be regulated at all.”               ​

Trees make incredible contributions to the well-being of cities and their residents, as the UFP says. They reduce storm water run-off, air pollution, the heat island effect, rates of respiratory ailments and energy usage. They provide wildlife habitat and give off oxygen while taking in harmful carbon dioxide. They are visually pleasing and provide shade and privacy.               ​

Former local District 6 City Councilor Matt O’Malley cited a study that showed the average tree gives $293 worth of benefits a year to its community at a City Council hearing in 2018.               ​

Boston’s tree canopy covers about 27 percent of the city, according to a Tree Canopy Assessment put out by the City in 2020 that analyzed tree cover changes in the City from 2014-2019. That isn’t high.               ​Findings from the same City of Boston Tree Canopy Assessment of 2020 show that Jamaica Plain saw a net loss of about eight acres of canopy coverage, most of which came from “residential, mixed use and public open space,” according to the Parks Department in 2021 and quoted by the Gazette.               ​During Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, the goal of 35 percent tree coverage in Boston by 2030 was set. That will be difficult to achieve just by planting new trees. Preserving mature trees, which bring more benefits than young ones, is important, especially in Boston’s environmental equity neighborhoods.   

​Key to thinking and planning for Boston’s urban forest is the fact that lower income neighborhoods with significant populations of people of color are being negatively impacted by a lack of trees. Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury residents suffer from related health issues.              

“It’s no coincidence that many of the communities disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and the urban “heat island” effect also have inadequate tree cover.” Parks Commissioner Ryan Woods said when the Urban Forest Plan, which has “equity” for those neighborhoods as a primary goal, was originally announced.               ​

District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who drafted the original TPO in 2021, said at a Council hearing where Woods was present that equity was a major goal of both the UFP and the TPO.               ​

At the moment, the brakes seem to be on regulating removal of private trees in those environmental equity neighborhoods and all of Boston, actually for some good, practical reasons.              

​But drafting and passing an ordinance regarding private tree removal should be put on the fast track in six months to a year. Every day those regulations are not in place, the environmental advantages they will bring to our neighborhoods and city are postponed.               ​

Meanwhile, there is a lot of work to be done in coming months to prepare for drafting and passing the new private tree ordinance.               ​

JP’s new District 6 City Councilor Ben Weber and David Meshoulam, co-founder and executive director of Speak for the Trees, said in separate interviews earlier this month they are happy to have the public tree ordinance on the books. Both said they want to monitor the implementation of that ordinance before moving on to regulating removal of privately owned trees, specifically paying attention to enforcement of the new rules and processes.              

​A Parks Department spokesperson pointed out another two reasons to not rush into creating the next TPO. City Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Spaces Mariama White-Hammond, who was a key person in leading the Parks Department’s UFP process and acting as a resource on the TPOs, will be leaving her position in April. Her replacement will need to be brought up to speed on tree protection activities here, along with myriad other subjects.              

​The Parks spokesperson also pointed out that the pubic tree ordinance that goes into effect next month calls for creation of an Urban Forest Advisory Committee (UFAC) of at least seven members. She said that group that will be convened this summer can be a valuable source of input.               ​

With the UFAC, which can possibly help shape and guide the ordinance governing private trees, and a new chief of environment in place, additional input from City agencies relating to private property, including the Planning and Inspectional Services Departments, will be sought, along with residential property owners, neighborhood associations, institutional property owners and advocates for various causes, according to the Parks Department spokesperson.              

​Public education needs to be done during coming months to make sure the private PTO is considered with a maximum of knowledge and a minimum of fear and interference on the part of the entire, interested Boston community.              

​The Parks Department working with tree advocacy and environmental groups in Boston can play an important role in gathering and sharing information necessary to make good decisions about developing private tree protections that work for everyone when the time comes.               ​

Discussions about a private TPO will go better if all participants have already:              

​1. Familiarized themselves with some tree protections already in place in a city or cities around the country.               ​

Boston is not alone. Urban tree protections are not some wild experiment cooked up by local tree-huggers. As individuals and organizations, the community can learn a lot from the tree ordinances and experiences of other cities. There’s no need to invent this private TPO wheel from scratch. We can look at existing regulations while crafting our own.               ​

Councilor Arroyo asked his staff to contact some of those cities for information, especially about any pitfalls they had encountered, as he drafted the original ordinance. Although specifics and lingo can be different, and provisions in some cities are scattered throughout various parts of their laws, successful TPOs have a lot of basics in common.               ​

Most tree protections go easy on small homeowners. Most make dealing with DDI (“Dead, Diseased, Imminent Hazard,” according to Austin) trees easy, too. Developers, attorneys, architects, landscapers and builders often treat the rules as just another part of a building code they already have to follow. Quite a few, I’ve heard, are into protecting trees and the environment as the ordinances say.               ​

My brother and his wife own a single-family house in a newish development in Austin, which has had tree protection regulations since 1984. I asked him last week, objectively speaking, what his experience with those regulations there has been. He said he and his wife have had to have four trees on their property cut down over the years because they were diseased or leaning way over. No special permits were necessary because they were smallish trees and were not healthy. ​    

On the other hand, he said, he is very happy that builders of a nearby housing development preserved lots of mature trees along the shared fence and planted other new trees throughout the development to keep with the City’s regulations. He said he likes knowing that the environment of all of Austin, not just his neighborhood, is better because of tree protection rules.               ​

People who have friends or relatives in other cities with TPOs might want to ask them about their experiences.              

​2. Read the City of Boston’s Urban Forest Plan and its appendixes.               ​

3. Read the provisions regarding trees on public and private land in the original ordinance submitted to the Boston City Council in 2021.  and of the one regarding trees on public land that just passed with a link to it here: They give a good idea of how private tree provisions might go.              

​4. Think in terms of the widely different types of private ownership of trees that will need to be considered when tailoring an ordinance suitable to each of them: institutional, commercial, small homeowner, large residential property owner or entity, new developments of various sizes, etc.               ​

5. Think in terms of what trees should be protected based on history, size, age, etc.              

​6. Everyone interested in the topic of tree protections should be open, not only to taking in information, but also to holding transparent, sometimes public dialogues with others when discussing protections and any concerns.              

​7. After the private TPO passes, outreach about it should be done to everyone in the city in various ways, including in brochures like the ones the City puts out now every winter regarding dealing with snow and low temperatures. It’s not too late to educate the entire community about the public TPO either.               ​District 9 City Councilor Liz Breadon—a co-sponsor of the urban tree protection ordinance as well as the original one, along with former Councilors Arroyo and local District 6 Councilor Kendra Lara—said at the Dec. 13 Council meeting that she was “delighted” that the “critically important” public TPO had passed.              

​“This is one phase,” Breadon pointed out. “I am committed to continue to work for public and private tree protections.”              

​Isabella Gambill is Assistant Director of Climate, Energy, & Resilience at A Better City (ABC), an organization that “represents a multi-sector group of nearly 130 business leaders united around a common goal: to enhance the Greater Boston region’s economic health, competitiveness, equitable growth, sustainability, and quality of life for all communities,” according to its website.               ​

ABC has not taken a position on either the new urban tree protection ordinance or an upcoming private tree ordinance.                ​

One thing is clear right now. Boston needs a private TPO. We need to prepare to draft and pass it after some prior practical actions, community education and monitoring of enforcement of the existing public TPO.              

​“No one will be surprised to hear that I am very supportive of a tree ordinance,” local environment and open space advocate Sarah Freeman of the Arborway Coalition, said during her City Council testimony when the first TPO, with urban and private trees included, was introduced in 2021.               ​

“The best time to enact it was 20 years ago,” she said. “The second-best time is now.”               ​

The same is still true of the part of that ordinance that remains to be enacted three years later.               ​Putting a lot pf time between the public TPO taking effect next month and developing a draft ordinance to add the majority of trees (private ones) to those we are safeguarding is slightly dangerous.               ​People quickly forget. And it’s tempting to want to ignore policies that could be controversial and a little complicated. The thought of private tree protections makes many people happy, but it makes a few people, especially those not familiar with what they typically entail and the benefits they bring, nervous, especially at first.              

​We can’t let the beginning of public tree protection in Boston mark the end of caring for more numerous, more threatened privately owned trees. That would be a real shame.               ​

And for a city that takes pride in its concern for science, greenspace and the environment, failing to pass a good private TPO would be downright shameful.               ​

Sandee Storey is Publisher Emerita of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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