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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).


In 2 letters, road behaviors contrast

Individual drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders naturally have differing views and observations when their modes of travel intersect. In many cases, those intersections are complicated. Below, two letters from readers, Bradley K. and Steve W., describe contrasting road behaviors from, respectively, the views of a driver and of a cyclist.

Bradley K. writes,

A week or so ago, I was driving down King Street in Alexandria between I-395 and Old Town. There was a cyclist riding down the road, mostly to the right-hand side. He was doing a pretty decent speed, but still worth passing.

This is a two lane road, so passing the cyclist was a game of patience. Once oncoming traffic subsided, I passed the cyclist in the oncoming lane (leaving him an entire lane of room) and thought nothing of it.

Of course knowing King Street, traffic came to a halt, and the cyclist caught up to me. He got in front of my car and started shouting obcenities at me and ended up giving me the finger...

This draws a few questions for me:
  1. What did I do wrong? I left the cyclist the entire lane while I passed.
  2. What do motorists expect of cyclists?
  3. What do cyclists expect of motorists?
What I expect of a cyclist:
  • If you are on the street, obey the rules of the road (including stop signs, stop lights etc.)
  • Stay to the right of the road. You don't have to be on the curb, but assist the motorists if they desire to pass you. It creates a safety issue if you are in the middle of the road going 15-20mph.
What I would expect of a motorist:
  • Treat the cyclist as a slow car.
  • Give the cyclist plenty of room if you need to pass.
  • DO NOT PASS if the road is narrow and there is oncoming traffic (see suggestion two)
It seems like Bradley did nothing wrong in this case, but riding in the middle of the lane is often the right thing to do.

Meanwhile, Steve W. writes,

This morning, I picked up a CaBi bike from my local station for the typically relaxing commute to the office. I made my way onto the cycle track on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. I would typically think of this section as being one of the safer and more segmented parts of my commute with no car doors to open or traffic sharing the same lane with me.

However, as I started through the 11th Street intersection going east, a minivan also going east made an illegal left turn in front of my path and onto 12th Street. Fortunately, I was able to slow down and only tap the minivan as it sped by without any consideration for cyclists.

Not only did the minivan not pay attention as it passed me and then turned in front of me on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it also made an illegal left turn as turns are never allowed at this intersection. Unfortunately, many drivers, especially tourists, are not familiar with having to pay attention to bike lanes that are separate but intersect at cross streets.

Perhaps these no-turn intersections should have some sort of red lights to additionally make drivers aware when and where they should not turn. Alternatively, maybe some sort of double yellow line would provide greater awareness to drivers.

I'm fortunate that no one was injured today, but not everyone is as fortunate.

Turning across the Pennsylvania Avenue lane illegally and without looking is definitely not the right thing to do.


Letter: For WMATA Board, think Greater Greater Washington

We received this letter from Josh Lopez, who was recently a candidate for DC Council at-large.

At-Large Council Member Michael Brown (I) has announced that he is stepping down from his position as one of the DC Board members to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) due to a busy schedule.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

This sudden announcement led me to think of a sound appointment to WMATA from a deserving group, Greater Greater Washington. This dedicated group of regular contributors is led by David Alpert and they have been at the forefront of transportation issues here in DC.

The appointment of a GGW member to the WMATA board would also be an asset in supporting Council member Tommy Wells (Ward 6) who also serves as the other appointed DC board member. Council member Wells currently chairs the Committee on Public Works and Transportation.

Mr. Wells has worked extensively with GGW over the years when it comes to transportation and developing new policies to encourage residents to get out of cars and use alternative means of transportation in DC. Although Mr. Wells brings new ideas and progressive policies to the table, he is only one voice.

The possibility of adding a second voice to support Mr. Wells would be great for the city. For years, DC has appointed members who may either not take the role seriously or have no background in transportation. This is a great opportunity to bring something new to the table. The appointment of a non-traditional transportation expert on the board will send the message that DC welcomes new ideas and will look at different and new ways to improve WMATA service for District residents.

Chairman Kwame Brown has the power to appoint a new board member to WMATA. I encourage him to explore this great opportunity. This potential appointment could be a win win for everyone. I encourage you to call Mr. Brown's office at 202-724-8032 or email him directly at and ask him to meet with Greater Greater Washington to discuss possible appointees to the WMATA board.


Letters: Cycling safety starts with cyclists

From time to time, readers email in with perspectives about issues in our region. Sometimes these get worked into articles, but at other times they don't. Therefore, we're starting a new feature, printing letters from readers. We might or might not not agree with what they say, but any we print will present a thoughtful perspective on an issue.

Today's letter is from Adam Irish, who wrote the recent "streetcars are preservationist" op-ed. Do you have a letter you'd like printed? Email it to

Riding my bike home from work the other day, I was almost killed. This is not an unusual circumstance for the DC cyclist, who is endangered daily by aggressive drivers and unfriendly roads. But this time it wasn't the absence of a bike lane or a driver's carelessness: it was a reckless bicyclist.

Australian PSA. Photo by Gui v R on Flickr.

Many Washington bicyclists fail to respect even the most basic traffic laws. By neglecting the rules of the road, errant cyclists not only endanger their own safety, but the safety of drivers, pedestrians, and above all, other bicyclists.

I was at the intersection of G and 12th NW, pedaling through a green light in the bike lane, when the car next to me swerved into the bike lane and slammed on its brakes. Luckily the vehicle was a few feet in front of me and I was able to brake before plowing into his back windshield, but the difference of a foot or two saved me from an ambulance.

Why had this car nearly killed me? No fault of the driver. An oblivious bicyclist was slowly navigating across the intersection, through heavy traffic and a red light. A moron. The problem is, morons on two wheels abound in this city. I'd say at least a third of my scary encounters on the road involve reckless fellow cyclists. I'd go farther and say that a good portion of the road rage we endure is the product of unsafe and disrespectful bicycling.

The bicycling community these days is rather prickly when it comes to criticism, and for good reason. As a regular bike commuter, I know the disrespect from automobiles and infrastructure inequalities firsthand. Bicyclists have a right to be on the road. They deserve dedicated lanes and signals. They deserve respect from drivers and pedestrians.

They also deserve to receive tickets, pay fines and attend court dates just as motorists do when they fail to obey the rules of the road. "When traveling on city streets, cyclists should follow the same rules of the road as motorized vehicles," says the DC Metropolitan Police Department website. "This means stopping at stop signs; obeying traffic signals and lane markings; and using hand signals to let others know your intention to stop or turn."

This should be a revelation to many DC cyclists, who seem to feel entitled to break as many traffic laws as possible. Almost every day I witness two-wheeled commuters clustered at a red light jockeying with one another to cross an intersection and dodge oncoming traffic. Sometimes I wonder if such public feats of rush-hour derring-do inspire some people to bike to work in the first place.

If bicyclists want to be treated equally on the road, they need to be treated equally in the eyes of the law. A biker running a stop sign should be just as likely to get a ticket as a motorist doing the same. This is certainly not the case in the status quo. Until then, DC bicyclists need to take the initiative to obey traffic laws without enforcement for the sake of safety and courtesy. After all, they go hand in hand—just ask an infuriated driver or a cyclist who has met one.

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