Greater Greater Washington

Missing the notice for the trees

Few government actions impact homeowners' properties as quickly or as irrevocably as cutting down trees.


DC street trees. Photo by shioshvili.

A leafy canopy makes a street far more desirable and valuable. It's no wonder, then, that residents get very upset when their government removes trees. Sometimes trees have to go; disease can kill them, and if a tree falls, that impacts the homeowner immediately and even literally.

At other times, however, arborists can disagree about whether a tree has to go. We have a honey locust tree in our backyard that lost a limb after another tree fell on it (and the house's previous owner's car) during a storm. About half the aborists we talk to say the tree should come out, since it might fall over one day. The other half say that these trees are nearly indestructible, and unless it starts dying, we have nothing to worry about. We like the shade. What to do? For now, we're keeping it. We hope we're right.

That tree is on private property. But if it were a street tree, DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration could simply decide to take it out. DDOT has policies that they should notify homeowners, and the Council has considered laws to require notification. But those aren't always followed.

On Monday, DDOT cut down six trees on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW. According to ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan, one tree was definitely a hazard and had to go, but others were at the very least open to debate. Meehan wrote,

The trees in front of 1760 Corcoran (cut down two weeks ago), and 1751 and 1732 Corcoran (cut down today) were removed solely on the basis of one forester's judgment that the trees were failing in some manner. This does not necessarily imply that there was ever any imminent danger to the public or that they couldn't have survived for many more years.
I have a Master Gardener Certificate and can attest that the tree in front of 1732, a female, was probably on its last legs and had lost several large limbs in recent years. However, I did not get a satisfactory answer justifying destroying the other two trees.

They were removed today, prior to community feedback, simply because equipment to do the job was already around the corner to remove two trees on the 1700 block of Q St at the request of residents. It is DDOT policy to confer with residents prior to taking down trees that don't pose immediate danger. This policy was totally ignored.

The three remaining trees were female ginko trees. Mr. Thomas apologized and said that his staff were wrong to cut down these trees. The trees should have stayed put unless the owners in front of the trees initiated a petition to remove them a nd 60% of their neighbors signed the petition. There had been no petition. Instead, there was just the presence of DDOT's equipment from Q St and a desire by DDOT staff to remove female ginkos.

This lack of communication is particularly frustrating because in other situations communication had been good. For example, the basis for the recent removal of female ginko trees (and their replacement by certified male ginkos) on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Corcoran St was a mutually-negotiated agreement between the city and the residents.

In replies, other residents spoke up in favor of removing the tree at 1751 Corcoran and agreeing with Meehan's assessment on 1732. Others noted that there had been complaints about the smell of the female ginkgos. There is no definitive evidence that the tree removals were wrong. However, they were clearly not communicated.

The Urban Forestry Administration has to manage many trees with few staff. They can't afford to teach every resident all about arboriculture every time they want to cut or prune a tree. However, it's also understandable that residents will want some communication and assurance about upcoming tree cutting. A tree takes decades to grow. A pruned limb never comes back. UFA needs to find some way to better communicate with residents.

At the end of September, tree crews started pruning various trees on my block. I was happy to give DDOT the benefit of the doubt, but wanted to find out what was planned and for which trees. However, numerous emails to UFA head John Thomas and Ward 2 arborist Munevver Ertem went unanswered. Ms. Ertem even told me on the phone that while normally they would email their database entries about a block's trees to residents, because of my blog she would have to check with others; I never got the information.

Eventually, the tree crew got around to the tree in front of my house. When I spoke to them about my desire to keep as much of the tree as possible, they said that they could certainly prune less than the standard, which is to cut all branches six feet away from any buildings. Like many on our block, that tree extends over our house, which I personally like for the added shade in summer.

Ms. Ertem also told me that an arborist had reviewed the block in May and scheduled the trees for pruning. That means from May to September, DDOT had a plan to prune the trees, but nobody knew about it. Nobody . I have no specific objection to any decisions of the arborist, but residents should have the opportunity to weigh in on the judgment calls, like how much to prune, and to know about what's planned.

UFA has a detailed database of street tress. DDOT should make that database available publicly. It will inevitably lead to more questions from affected residents, but answering questions is something our government officials should do.

Meehan has arranged for UFA's John Thomas and DDOT Director Gabe Klein to attend next Wednesday's ANC 2B meeting.

David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. 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 loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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on a related note, is there a way to request new trees? and what would happen if someone just planted a tree in an empty tree box and my neighbor has mentioned doing?

by dano on Dec 2, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

Trees have GENDERS? This kind of blows my mind.

by Malnurtured Snay on Dec 2, 2009 12:21 pm • linkreport

if they cut down all the smelly ginko trees on corcoran street, the world would be a better place, regardless of what replaced them.

by matt b on Dec 2, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

@dano: Yes, call 311 and request a street tree planting. It takes a while for it actually to happen, but they quickly go out and survey to see whether the space can take one (there are various reasons why it may not be possible).

Technically you are required to get a public space permit to plant a tree in the tree box. But I have the feeling enforcement of that rule isn't high on the priority list and you're not likely to get punished for planting a tree in a tree box without a permit.

by ah on Dec 2, 2009 12:27 pm • linkreport

I am not sure that communication with every single home-owner near a tree is necessary. DDOT has a lot to do, and quite frankly, I don't want tax-payer money wasted on infinite debate on the health of a tree. That is frankly inefficient.

What is reasonable, is for DDOT to announce its actions and allow citizens to protest.

Furthermore, I would hope that DDOT just has a good arborist, and that DDOT efficiency and functionality is properly overseen by the city council.

Finally, I get tired of people complaining that their property looses value do to the legitimate actions of someone else. If someone else caused the increase in value, without your investment, you can't complain when you loose the value again. It wasn't yours to start with.

Sorry, but this is just life in a big dynamic city. Things change. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad. If the city government behaves responsibly, then everything should work out. It is not the job of the government to negotiate with everybody who is involved. Unlike the Swiss, we do not have individual mandates for every citizen, but collective representation.

by Jasper on Dec 2, 2009 12:39 pm • linkreport

Your honeylocust will make great lumber someday. The wood is very resistant to rot. It would make durable and long lasting fencing or porch decking and would not require chemical/toxic pressure treating.

UFA notifying a block's worth of neighbors for every tree I have to think would be a gargantuan task. Hundreds of thousands of trees x tens of thousands of residences equals how much communicating to do essential sustainable forestry?

by crin on Dec 2, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

Much as I love trees, I'm not a fan of the idea of "community" input as to whether a tree should be removed. I had a large, dying tree in front of my house. I asked the city to remove it before any more large limbs fell on my front yard, house, and family. That alone took forever, despite the obvious hazard. I doubt my neighbors would have cared much about those falling limbs, and neither the suffering homeowner nor DDOT should be obligated to get some form of "community" approval, let alone 60% (a level of agreement that is extremely unlikely in DC on pretty much anything other than that republicans suck).

by ah on Dec 2, 2009 1:00 pm • linkreport

I'm not going to lose any sleep over a female ginko tree. They are probably the nastiest trees around. As a female tree, they make berries. These berries fall to the ground. They get stepped on. The odor of stepped-on ginko berries is like that of vomit and cat poo. It's nothing you want to get involved with. Yes, ginkos are unique among trees in that they do have gender. They are virtually unchanged from the Pliocene era and are nearly extinct in the wild.

by ksu499 on Dec 2, 2009 1:07 pm • linkreport

I help coordinate tree issues in my (not in DC) neighborhood.
All trees eventually die. I used to fret about certain trees being lost, but now I try to focus on the "whole". We have been successful by identifying "gaps" in street tree coverage, and being proactive about planting there, especially if there are large nearby trees who's days are numbered. Nothing replaces the loss of a mature tree, but it sure helps when the surrounding area has trees that are established and gradually helping to back fill. The most important aspect (for us) has been trying to get neighbors involved as stakeholders and take an ownership role- particularly with early-life watering. Fortunately I have a very cooperative and supportive city arborist office to deal with also.

by spookiness on Dec 2, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

Why did the city even have to negotiate on the female gingkos? Who were the idiots who were fighting to preserve them? And what does that say about the benefits of "community" input?

by ah on Dec 2, 2009 1:14 pm • linkreport

@Malnurtured Snay Ginko Biloba is a gendered tree. Females grow flowers and males make pollen. Where the wind carries the pollen to fertilize a flower, the females produce fruit. Few trees today work this way, but most used to, and Ginko Biloba is a very ancient variety of tree.

by dcseain on Dec 2, 2009 1:31 pm • linkreport

@ ah

"Who are the idiots fighting to preserve them?" Umm, probably the people who live on the street.

"And what does that say about the benefits of "community" input?" I guess we should let DDOT and the GGW commenteriat decide on what's best for the street and not the people who actually live on the street.

Are you really saying that these homeowners are expected to water and take care of the tree boxes, but should not have a say regarding whether the trees (if alive) should be cut down? That's ridiculous.

by Peter Lemonjello on Dec 2, 2009 3:23 pm • linkreport

"Who are the idiots fighting to preserve them?" Umm, probably the people who live on the street.

Umh, I think you meant to say "possibly a tiny minority of the people who live on the street." They're sure as Hell not the ones who've got these female gingkos hanging over their houses/sidewalks.

by oboe on Dec 2, 2009 3:49 pm • linkreport

@ Peter: I guess we should let DDOT and the GGW commenteriat decide on what's best for the street and not the people who actually live on the street.

Your argument does not hold. If people can decide what happens in their street, why can't people decide what happens in front of their house? Well, because *they don't own the ground in front of their house*.

The point of democracy is that *everybody* gets to decide together. Everybody wants a tree in front of their house, and nobody wants a road in front of their house. Yet everybody needs a road in front of their neighbor's house to get to work. That situation is unsustainable.

The point of democracy is that you accept a road in front of your house, so that your neighbor can get to work. In exchange, he accepts a road in front of his house so that you can go to work.

It is impossible to live in a world where people only consider the immediate local needs. You need to look at the larger picture. Quite often, that means that you have to figure out how to deal with the less pleasant parts of living in the modern world.

If you want to determine single-handedly what happens in front of your house, go buy a few acres in WV, MT or AK and do so. If you want to live in a city, please accept that others have something to say about the surroundings of your house.

by Jasper on Dec 2, 2009 4:09 pm • linkreport

According to DC Code 10-731, if a tree on public land is scheduled for removal, unless the tree is an imminent hazard the Department of Public Works shall provide a 7-day written notice prior to removing the tree. The notice excludes Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays and shall be posted on the tree.

by Mike Galvin on Dec 2, 2009 4:14 pm • linkreport

Peter--These are female Gingko trees, which are widely recognized as a nuisance tree, so much so that they are exempted (along with mulberries and Norway maples) from DC's special tree removal restrictions.

by ah on Dec 2, 2009 5:24 pm • linkreport

DDOT was incompetent and cut down trees it shouldn't. They admitted it. Period. Not "everybody" got to decide. The residents of this street deserved to be notified and allowed to give feedback.

http://ufa.ddot.dc.gov/ufa/cwp/view,a,1292,q,575305.asp

"UFA has developed a process that will allow property owners to decide, on a block-by-block basis, if they wish to have Ginkgo trees removed, and replanted with male Ginkgo trees, which do not produce fruit. However, before any determination will be made to remove the tree the following criteria must be met:

-The abutting property owner must concur with the proposed removal.
-The tree must be a female Ginkgo tree exhibiting a current year fruit problem.
-The heaviest fruiting trees, per block, will be considered for removal first.
-No more than 20 percent of the total trees on any given block will be removed in any given year. If the problem exceeds 20 percent of the block, a removal rotation will be planned."

by Peter Lemonjello on Dec 2, 2009 5:48 pm • linkreport

Written notice is nice, but really unnecessary in this case. Follow the lead of Minneapolis, a city with a great urban tree canopy and forestry department. Minneapolis aggressively cuts down all their elm trees as soon as they show signs of sickness, and as a result still has many great old, mature elm trees. They also aim to plant 2-3 trees for every one they cut down.

As for notice to trees on public lands to be cut down? Simple - a bright orange ring is spray-painted around the trunk of the tree to signify disease, a large X signifies pending removal, and they also put out door hangars for residents.

http://www.minneapolisparks.org/default.asp?PageID=539

Minneapolis also has the right to remove diseased trees on private property as well.

by Alex B. on Dec 2, 2009 7:07 pm • linkreport

These complaints about Ginkgo trees are insane. Ginkgo's are the most robust trees on the planet, entirely immune to any type of insects, bacteria, fungus, animals, weather, poor soil, confined spaces, etc. They are extremely long-lived even for trees, with many examples over 1,200 years old, some even claimed to be over 1,800 years old. For this reason, and for their general beauty, ginkgos are excellent urban and shade trees, and are widely planted along many densely populated city streets thoughout the world.

Extreme examples of the Ginkgo's tenacity may be seen in Hiroshima, Japan, where six trees growing between 1–2 km from the 1945 atom bomb explosion were among the few living things in the area to survive the blast. While almost all other plants (and animals) in the area were destroyed, the ginkgos, though charred, survived and were soon healthy again. The trees are alive to this day.

Ginkgo has many nootropic (ie. "smart drug") properties, and is mainly used as memory and concentration enhancer, and anti-vertigo agent. The nut-like gametophytes inside the seeds are particularly esteemed in Asia, and are a traditional Chinese food. Ginkgo nuts are used in congee (a type of rice porridge), and are often served at special occasions such as weddings and the Chinese New Year (as part of the vegetarian dish called Buddha's delight). In Chinese culture, they are believed to have many health benefits; some also consider them to have aphrodisiac qualities.

The ginkgo nut is edible and highly valued in asian markets: “both a prized delicacy and an invaluable food for long life…throughout Asia” according to the New England Ecology Garden. The nuts, roasted, “make a tasty snack,” according to Flordata.com and Lucy at the Nourish Me blog offers a ginkgo nut custards recipe.

http://nourish-me.blogspot.com/2008/05/gingko-nut-custards.html

Ginkgo extract may have three effects on the human body: improvement in blood flow (including microcirculation in small capillaries) to most tissues and organs; protection against oxidative cell damage from free radicals; and blockage of many of the effects of platelet-activating factor (platelet aggregation, blood clotting)[34] that have been related to the development of a number of cardiovascular, renal, respiratory and central nervous system disorders. Ginkgo can be used for muscle pain. There are also established links between ginkgo use and the easing of the symptoms of tinnitus (ringing in the ears).

by lee watkins on Dec 3, 2009 7:19 am • linkreport

There are three types of trees recognized as nuisance trees and exempt from Special Tree removal permits. However, ginkgos are not one of them. They are: Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven), Mulberry, and Norway maple. See DCMR 3701.9 for details: http://trees.ddot.dc.gov/ufa/frames.asp?doc=/ufa/lib/ufa/ufa/pdf/UFA_page_DCR.pdf

by Mike Galvin on Dec 3, 2009 8:35 am • linkreport

RE: Mike Galvin - the Norway maple is technically an invasive species although it nearly impossible to tell it apart from native maple trees. There's really noting of a nuisance about them other than that they are not native. The reason why one would want to plant them is that they are one of the most hearty street/city trees you can find, much more resistant to bugs, disease, rot, weather etc.

Red mulberry is actually naive to this area, but other more agressive varieties are invasive. The ripe fruit is edible and is widely used in pies, tarts, wines, and cordials. However the white sap in these is mildly hallucinogenic! The fruit of the black mulberry, native to southwest Asia, and the red mulberry, native to eastern North America, have the strongest flavor. The fruit of the white mulberry, an east Asian species which is extensively naturalized in urban regions of eastern North America, has a different flavor, sometimes characterized as insipid. The mature plant contains significant amounts of resveratrol, particularly in stem bark. For this reason the fruit and leaves are sold in various forms as nutritional supplements. Raw fruit and green parts of the plant have a white sap that is intoxicating and mildly hallucinogenic. The plant is rich in Anthocyanins, ie. pigments which hold potential use as dietary modulators of mechanisms for various diseases.

The Tree of Heaven is otherwise known as the "Trash Tree" frequently seen in run-down or abandoned urban properties. Like many weeds, it is an opportunistic plant that thrives in full sun and disturbed areas. It spreads aggressively both by seeds and vegetatively by root sprouts. It can re-sprout rapidly after being cut.

The bark of Tree of heaven is known as "white bark of spring" in Chinese medicine, and is a known antimalarial agent. The bark is said to have cooling and astringent properties and is primarily used to treat dysentery, intestinal hemorrhage, menorrhagia and spermatorrhea. A tincture of the root-bark has been used successfully in treating cardiac palpitation, asthma and epilepsy.

by lee watkins on Dec 3, 2009 9:39 am • linkreport

Thanks for the disertaion, lee. And I agree with you gingkos are quite nice. Oh, except the female ones. Those should be cut down, chopped into a hash, then ground into a slurry, then shot into space.

While it's nice to gush about them on the comments section of a blog, it's not so nice to have to spend two months every year wading through 6" of gingko-berry slurry that smells like a dog who threw up after eating his own shit.

by oboe on Dec 3, 2009 2:54 pm • linkreport

I live on a gingko-lined street (not Corcoran) and I can't believe there are people who want to cut down beautiful, old, *healthy* gingko trees just because they periodically bear foul-smelling fruit. They are gorgeous trees.

There is one female gingko on my block that still drops a lot of fruit. The tenants in the adjoining residence do not sweep and neither does the owner. And yet, when i walk in that direction, I do not step in the fruit. How do I manage this amazing feat? This is my secret: I WALK AROUND, NOT THROUGH, IT.

If the problem tree is on a block where you live, you too can walk around it, or you can buy a broom. If its more than one tree, talk to your neighbors about a rotating sweeping schedule. Or, if you've got a little money, you could approach a few neighbors about chipping in for a gardening service to sweep the block once or twice a week for the relevant months. If you're complaining about trees that are not on the block where you live, walk down a different block.

What I found astounding is that someone would rather spend "two months every year wading though 6" of gingko-berry slurry" (exaggerate much?) or have the city kill the tree, than take a few simple steps to alleviate or avoid the problem.

by N. on Dec 14, 2009 11:25 am • linkreport

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