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Neighbors alarmed when old oaks suddenly disappear

Residents really value the trees in their neighborhoods, and when the city cuts them down, it's an irreversible decision. Dupont Circle Nord Wennerstrom wrote in about trees at Ross Elementary, on R Street, suddenly disappearing:

Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.
Three years ago GGW's David Alpert wrote an article about tree removal on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW that caused a neighborhood uproar. Well, three years later and one block north, it's happening again.

On Dec. 31, 2012, on the grounds of the Ross Elementary School, contractors for the Department of General Services (DGS) chopped down one large failing oak and then chopped down two large perfectly healthy oaks—among the largest trees on the block. DGS, which maintains DCPS buildings and grounds, did not notify the neighborhood, the school's principal, the DCPS Chancellor's office or Councilmember Jack Evans. DDOT/Urban Forestry was similarly unaware.

Neighbors intervened to prevent a complete clear cutting—today one last oak still stands. Councilmember Evans' office has gotten involved along with ANC 2B03 rep Stephanie Maltz. The contractors on site, Andersen Tree Expert Co., said an arborist had certified the need for the trees to come down. Actually, the arborist is an Andersen employee, and Andersen got the job for chopping down the trees and was paid by the tree.
Wennerstrom's detailed explanation about the DGS's and Andersen's stated reasons for taking down the trees (which Wennerstrom finds dubious) are below. Certainly the biggest issue is not communicating about the issue ahead of time. Further, there is the question of whether arborists tend to be overzealous about taking out trees.

I've talked to several arborists, both at DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration and private arborists I've hired to prune the tree on my own property. You might expect someone whose job is caring for trees to want to do everything possible to maximize tree life, but I've found that many arborists would take down a lot more trees, and a lot earlier, than most residents would.

Our block, not far from Ross, has a number of very large oak trees. Some of them have fungus starting to grow near the roots, which will eventually kill the trees. However, they could last many more years before that happens. On the other hand, over time this will weaken the roots, and eventually, one might fall in a large storm, damaging nearby houses.

When we had a private arborist to look at our private tree, I asked him about some of the street trees along the block. He said he would probably recommend taking several of those down (not the one closest to our house, fortunately) sooner rather than later.

The experts would often choose to take trees down as soon as anything seems wrong. Meanwhile, residents love their trees, and want to keep them up. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration has to balance residents' desire to preserve trees against the profession's predilection for removal.

It's hard to know who is right. The arborist profession might know what we don't. On the other hand, they could fall victim to orthodoxies around an arbitrary "standard." Certainly, DDOT has its standards, like cutting all branches up to 8 feet away from houses, just as the traffic engineering profession has controversial standards for road curvature, clear zones and more. The 8-foot tree standard keeps branches from hitting the houses, but also yields odd-shaped trees and cuts down on the shade that helps keep houses cool.

Here is the rest of Wennerstrom's letter:

On Dec. 31, Andersen reps on site and contacted by telephone offered several reasons for the demolition—including root rot due to excessive ground moisture, the poor health of the trees, the trees were causing basement leaks and, what turns out to be the real reason, trenching needs to be done around the perimeter of the building to remedy the leaks, an action that will endanger the trees.

In fact, on Dec. 26, an Andersen inspection determined there was no root rot yet on Dec. 31 their reps insisted root rot was the cause; the Ward 4 arborist Joel Conlon, who inspected the trees on Dec. 31, and says there's no evidence the trees were in poor health, contradicting what Andersen reps were telling the neighbors; and landscape architect James Urban, one of the nation's leading authorities on design with trees and soils in urban settings, questioned the aggressive trenching/leak remediation plan proposed. Urban says tree and root pruning, along with careful trenching would permit the need leak remediation without destroying the trees.

Attempts to get information from DGS continue to be frustrating. For example, we requested the written evaluation that justified the trees' removal and we only received a cover letter and a crudely drawn schematic diagram. Not included, and crucial to the discussion, were Andersen's eight pages of tree evaluation forms with several questionable observations.

Now DGS has come up with a new reason for the trees' removal. In the Jan. 9 edition of the Dupont Current, DGS spokesperson Kenneth Diggs is quoted as saying the trees are causing the sidewalk to buckle. That's completely untrue—no sidewalks are buckling. Mr. Diggs and DGS made that up.

We enjoy having Ross Elementary as our across-the-street neighbor and recognize the school's need for building improvements—we've already lived through three months of a very noisy and filthy renovation this past summer.

DGS may have done everything "by the book", but they continue to do a really poor job of communicating with the public.

This weekend, Wennerstrom followed up with an update:
On the Ross front, I've heard from another DGS spokesperson. The bottom line is that DGS never considered any basement leak remediation methods that would also have saved the trees—they were doomed from the outset. Their arborist's certification that the trees had to go was a pro forma move.

Nevertheless, in a January 2, 2013 email response to Ward 2 Council Member Jack Evans about the Ross situation, DGS Director Brian Hanlon wrote: "I never take lightly the removal of any tree." (Imagine if DGS were in charge of RGIII's healthcare, rather than microsurgery for his knee, they would have amputated his leg).

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Yes, yes, yes, I see this all the time. I assume it's a mixed of misplaced financial incentives (the pay-per-tree) and a philosophy of "cut first, ask questions later". It's really distressing. Five beautifully arching trees were cut down on my block after Sandy. To be fair, they seemed to lose large branches during most serious storms, but they were otherwise quite healthy. The rumor on the block was that the homeowner directly in front of the trees had been bugging the city for years to cut them down in order to increase their morning light. Of course this means the houses on the other side of the street will now completely bake in the afternoon sun.

It's not a clear cut answer either way, but when there isn't a clear answer, the correct approach is to have a process for people to weigh in. And the contractors should not be the ones deciding whether their work is necessary.

by TM on Jan 22, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

Not to say it's always the case, but sometimes people get emotionally overinvested in large trees. Any arborist can tell stories of people getting irate, even physically threatening them. Public safety overrides the concerns of neighbors, always, and large trees often have chronic problems that are not apparent to the naked eye.

As long as there's replacement going on, the cutting of mature trees is natural and even desireable.

by Crickey7 on Jan 22, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

Some tree maintenance is required. Especially old ones in dense areas. I remember the '03('04?) took down just about ever tenth tree in Glover Park - many onto roofs or cars. That said I don't understand the logic of hiring consultants to decide which go down? Seems like an obvious conflict of interest and ceding way too much decision making. Also if it's a liability thing, why not submit a list of proposed trees to the local ANC. If the people don't want to cut them down that seems like at least DGS couldnt be held liable once they fall (although I'm not a lawyer so I'm not sure).

by Alan B. on Jan 22, 2013 3:31 pm • linkreport

People get killed all the time by falling trees in this area. It's not just liability.

by Crickey7 on Jan 22, 2013 3:40 pm • linkreport

I mean it's pretty damn rare. People get struck by lightning too. I'm not saying they don't need to be maintained (that was the first point I made) but this didnt seem at all to be an issue where they thought trees had potential to come down in the near future. I find it unlikely that most people would protest if DGS said, "Look, these trees have a high probability of falling or losing big branches in the next storm."

by Alan B. on Jan 22, 2013 3:50 pm • linkreport

If you love trees, move to Takoma Park.

We love trees!

by Steve on Jan 22, 2013 5:00 pm • linkreport

DGS needs serious oversight, from bottom to top. Articles in the City Paper, for example, show that the rot isn't in the tree roots, it's in the department's structure and leadership.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jan 22, 2013 5:30 pm • linkreport

"It's hard to know who is right. The arborist profession might know what we don't."

Well yeah, that's why they're the professionals. Of course some professions fall into misguided orthodoxies, but to suggest that they're probably wrong is a bit of an argumentum ad populum, wherein keeping trees is automatically the best thing because most people really like them.

We tend to think forest fires are bad things, and yet experts generally agree that they are a necessary part of a forest's life cycle that help prevent larger, more catastrophic wildfires.

by MM on Jan 22, 2013 5:49 pm • linkreport

The value of a mature tree in front of a house is estimated at $10,000 -- notwithstanding other environmental services it provides like shade and cooling.

It's no wonder homeowners get irate. In strictly financial terms, having your tree cut is like having your car stolen.

by Matt C on Jan 22, 2013 7:53 pm • linkreport

It's not just that UFA falls prey to misguided orthodoxies, it's that they don't know in the first place. I have many examples of dealing with UFA people who simply lack the experience to know better or the curiosity to learn more. Those who say that they are the ones to be investigated are correct. Good piece, and they letter writer certainly seems to be the thorough one here. This is more and more the case dealing with the government.

by Jazzy on Jan 22, 2013 10:03 pm • linkreport

Depending on the type of disease a tree has, including fungi, you can often treat it, and not have to cut it down. But it depends.

As others have noted, contractors have a financial incentive to advocate for cutting down trees.

Many arborists are not actual city residents, and have a higher degree of fear of liability than they do operating in the suburbs. I've seen this both with UFA and DGS, actually. I'm sure it's difficult, but if DC could grow and produce our own arborists, I think we'd all be better off. But that is debateable. UFA is a pretty transient agency, and that does hurt the cause.

As I have mentioned a few times before, trees, especially our large shade trees, are going to become more and more of an issue and flashpoint with climate change. In order to foster them and preserve them, there is no question that one way or another we have to create and maintain more interest and especially knowledge about large trees. Otherwise, we will be a dinky city full of ornamentals. Oh and no shade.

Sure, people can get overemotional about trees, but that does not mean we are not ill-served by the agencies supposedly protecting them.

As for the statement, 'the arborists might know what we don't,' it is within the realm of reason to inform yourself about the trees you have in your own yard, in depth and confidently. Arborists are not special people with exclusive access to this knowledge. Anyone is capable of understanding this stuff!

by Jazzy on Jan 22, 2013 10:22 pm • linkreport

Where I live we have a different arborist decide which trees need to come down that the ones who get paid to remove a tree. And when sidewalks buckle, we replace the type of sidewalk.

by Ren on Jan 23, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport

@jazzy - Most of UFA's arborists live within the District and have worked in their jobs for a number of years without significant turnover.

by AR on Jan 23, 2013 4:59 pm • linkreport

I've dealt with three arborists who are no longer there. For me, that turnover is significant.

by Jazzy on Jan 23, 2013 5:10 pm • linkreport

There will be a representative from Dept. of General Services at the next ANC 2B meeting to provide more information about this issue. This meeting will be on Wednesday, February 13 at 7 pm at the Brookings Institution (1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW). Community members are encouraged to attend to learn more.

by Stephanie Maltz on Jan 23, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

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