Posts about Trees
DC is about to launch a massive project burying 163 miles of power lines. The project will improve power reliability, but hidden issues could impact neighborhood streetscapes and tree canopies.
After the 2012 derecho caused widespread power outages, DC began development of a plan to improve reliability during extreme weather, called DC Power Lines Undergrounding (DC PLUG). DC PLUG will cost nearly $1 billion to underground power lines throughout the city, which will improve power reliability during extreme weather.
But how will the lines be buried? Right now, the plan doesn't specify where in the streetscape the underground lines will go. Burying the power line under sidewalks would allow DDOT and Pepco to avoid digging up streets during construction, but could hurt the health and safety of thousands of trees.
Approximately 8700 street trees are in the right-of-way along the 163 miles of power lines that DC PLUG has tapped for burial.
If DC and Pepco bury lines in the roadway, the majority of communities with trees threatened by this project won't be affected during construction. The city won't have to recover or replant thousands of trees, and will preserve the beauty of DC's historic tree-lined neighborhoods.
Above ground wires won't disappear
Don't get too excited over the prospect of a wire-free city. It would take $5 billion to fully underground every above ground wire within the city's 21 identified vulnerable areas, never mind every wire in the city - money that's not in the budget.
According to DDOT and Pepco, DC PLUG will only bury the "primary" power lines of the 21 least reliable feeders. So even if your street is in an area targeted by DC PLUG, you'll still have above ground wires. That's because utility poles, secondary service lines, and other telecommunications wires will remain above ground. Streets where DDOT and Pepco propose to bury lines will see changes like this:
Comment on Tuesday
Residents still have time to weigh in on the undergrounding project this week.
The DC Public Service Commission is holding a community hearing tomorrow night at 6:00 pm. The hearing location is the DC Public Service Commission hearing room, 1333 H St NW, 7th floor east tower.
If you're unable to attend the hearing in person, you can still submit written testimony to the Commission at 1333 H Street, NW, Suite 200, West Tower, Washington DC 20005 until September 15.
The commission will vote on the plan after a congressional review period ends in October.
Transportation chair Mary Cheh has released her serious budget proposals today, and has added funding to design and build a park on the piers of the old 11th Street Bridge, give the neglected Ivy City neighborhood new trees and a recreation center, and more.
Tomorrow, Cheh will propose that her committee amend Mayor Gray's proposed transportation capital budget to add $2 million to design the bridge park in Fiscal Year 2015, followed by $12.5 million across FY2016 and FY2017 to build it. That will cover half the cost; bridge supporters plan to raise the other half from private sources.
Under Cheh's plan, $300,000 will go to fix up streetscapes at Eastern Market, while $1 million over two years will pay to extend Ivy City's sidewalks and include treeboxes. That neighborhood, in an industrial part of the city, has no tree boxes on most of its streets, and therefore no street trees.
Instead of a tour bus parking lot, as the Gray administration proposed last year, Cheh's budget will fund a recreation center on that site (which costs almost $9 million). Rec centers in Chevy Chase, Edgewood, Hardy (in Foxhall Village) and Hillcrest get more money as well, as does the Therapeutic Recreation Center in Ward 7's Randle Circle.
The budget includes $500,000 to finish design for Franklin Square (but funding to actually help build the new park is yet to come in the future).
Roads will also get more money: repaving and repairs to roadways get a boost of $321,000 for each of the eight wards in FY2015. That's in addition to the mayor's capital budget which gave each ward's road projects about $5.2 million over six years. Ward 8 also got an extra $1.3 million from Gray, and Cheh's amendment moves it from the operating budget to the capital budget.
Finally, Cheh is funding a new outdoor pool to go somewhere in Ward 3, which residents have been campaigning for. Critics note that Ward 3 has one of the top public indoor swimming facilities in the city, at Wilson High School, but proponents say that indoor swimming isn't the same, and besides, the ward should have more pools.
Cheh's proposal also will fund some Ward 3 school and library projects: the Cleveland Park library, Palisades Library, Murch Elementary and Watkins Elementary renovations, and also the Capitol View library in Ward 7. It's not unusual for each ward councilmember to pop a few ward-based projects into their respective committees' budgets.
Where does this money come from?
A lot of the money comes from the South Capitol Street Bridge project. It current includes a swing span so that ships can access the Washington Navy Yard, but that was only opened 4 times in the last 8 years.
The Coast Guard has reportedly told DDOT that it is probably fine with not replacing the swing span. And, according to Cheh's committee director Drew Newman, they feel that if the federal government really wants a swing span anyway, then federal money should fund it. (DC is building the South Capitol bridge with local dollars, not federal transportation funds.) The change will save up to $140 million.
Cheh is also moving some streetcar money to later years, because DDOT has built up a surplus of almost $100 million in its streetcar accounts, and won't need some money in the capital plan until later on, according to Cheh's staff's analysis.
Circulator fares freeze, and commuter rail gets a plan
In the operating budget, not much is changing from Mayor Gray's very pro-transit budget. Cheh will freeze Circulator fares at their current level of $1 for at least one year, so that DDOT can engage with the public about whether the fares have to rise.
Another $500,000 will pay to create a Comprehensive Rail Plan. DC does not control MARC, VRE, Amtrak, or CSX, but there needs to be a unified plan about how to help grow commuter rail service in, out, and through DC. The tracks and stations at Union Station, L'Enfant Plaza, and the Long Bridge over the Potomac will need changes to make this possible, and since those facilities are in DC, the District can play a leadership role. The Committee of 100's Monte Edwards has been lobbying for planning around commuter rail, and he's absolutely right. Cheh agrees.
The Committee on Transportation and the Environment will hold its mark-up tomorrow. The other members, David Grosso, Kenyan McDuffie, Jim Graham, and Tommy Wells, could seek to introduce other amendments as well, though typically these budget proposals already reflect requests and negotiations between the councilmembers.
Students at MIT recently created a map of greenery along DC streets by analyzing Google Street View images to approximate visible plant life for each street, using dots of varying sizes and opacities.
The You Are Here project will create 100 different maps for 100 different cities. Students are hoping to inspire social change and help individuals better understand the surrounding urban environments.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.
Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).
The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.
Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.
The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.
Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.
This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.
Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.
In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.
To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.
The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.
Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.
Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.
Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.
Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.
Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.
Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.
With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:
- Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
- The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
- The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
- Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.
The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.
Is this a good idea?
What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.
This week, celebrate spring by helping clean up the Anacostia River and learning about trees in urban environments. You can also talk about bicycling in Montgomery County, bus technology, and safer streets in DC.
Clean up the Anacostia: On Saturday, April 5, the Anacostia Watershed Society is organizing clean-up events in DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's. Organizers will talk to volunteers about the river and its watershed, and then volunteers will help remove trash from neighborhoods, streams, and the river.
The cleanup activities run from 9 am to noon at 20 sites Volunteers of all ages are welcome. You can register here. At noon, join other volunteers at RFK Stadium for free food, drink, music, and speakers for a post-cleanup celebration.
Montgomery County bicycle summit: Discuss the future of biking in Montgomery County at a bicycle summit on Saturday, April 5. The summit includes a family bike ride, presentations from local bike groups and the Montgomery County DOT, and a panel discussion. It will be at the Jane Lawton Recreation Center (4301 Willow Lane) in Chevy Chase from 9:15 am to noon.
Bus hack night: On Thursday, April 3, find out if data visualizations can make buses sexy (hint: ART and WMATA think so). Speakers from WMATA, ART, and Conveyal, a consulting group, will talk about ways to use data from bus GPS devices to improve service. ART and WMATA have provided data to discuss at this event.
The discussion will run from 6:00 to 8:30 pm at the Mobility Lab, 1501 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 1100, Arlington. You can RSVP here.
Florida Ave transit study: DDOT is holding a public meeting on Wednesday, April 2 to discuss the Florida Avenue Multimodal Transportation Study. This study is evaluating traffic safety, streetscape enhancements, and operational improvements for the section of Florida Ave NE from New York Ave to H Street and Benning Road and surrounding roads.
Tony Goodman has written about the options DDOT will present at the meeting, which will take place at the Two Rivers Public Charter Middle School (1234 4th Street NE) from 7:00 to 9:00 pm.
Learn about urban arboreta: Nate Heavers, Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at Virginia Tech, and Ray Mims, of the US Botanic Garden and Sustainable Sites Initiative, will give a presentation on the history of planting trees in public spaces in DC and Alexandria.
After the talk there will be a Q&A session and a reception. This free event takes place on Tuesday, April 1 from 7:00 to 9:30 pm at 1021 Prince Street in Alexandria. You can RSVP by emailing email@example.com.
Who hears opinions on public projects?: Many of you share your thoughts on public projects on social media, but that doesn't mean agencies making decisions see it. The National Capital Planning Commission is having a panel discussion about how public agencies handle official versus unofficial feedback and resident input that comes in using newer technology.
NCPC's William Herbig will moderate a conversation with Greater Greater Washington's David Alpert, Cheryl Cort of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, Don Edwards from Justice and Sustainability Associates, and NBC4 reporter Tom Sherwood. The event is Wednesday, April 9, 7:00-8:30 pm at NCPC, 401 9th St NW, Suite 500.
The sidewalk on the east side of Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring just got a makeover, with new brick pavers and street trees. But will it have enough room for everyone who wants to use it?
Montgomery County's Department of Housing and Community Affairs (DHCA) managed the $650,000 project, which began this summer and lasted about five months. The agency's main goal was to level and lower the sidewalk to meet the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It replaced the existing concrete sidewalk, built in the 1980s, with sturdier and more attractive brick pavers, and created large new bumpouts at some intersections.
The new sidewalk is very attractive and will hopefully encourage visitors and shoppers to stray from the Ellsworth Drive strip and check out the businesses on Georgia. But it also reveals the tension between different users on Silver Spring's often-cramped sidewalks.
DHCA also removed all of the mature Zelkova trees along Georgia, arguing that the sidewalk reconstruction would disturb the trees and kill them. The new trees are Princeton or Lacebark Elm trees, which will apparently improve the visibility of shops and restaurants from the street.
The old sidewalks had trees in tree grates, allowing room that businesses could put out tables and chairs and leave enough sidewalk for people to walk past comfortably. But the new trees now sit in long, wide planter boxes with little gaps in between for street lights or people getting out of parked cars.
This isn't the only place in downtown Silver Spring with new planters. The county's Department of Transportation (MCDOT) also installed the same planters along Ellsworth Drive and Fenton Street, except with three-foot-high hedges. Some planters, like one on Fenton Street, extend for most of a city block to discourage jaywalking.
In 2009, when planning on the Georgia Avenue sidewalk project started, county-hired arborist Steve Castrogiovanni recommended doing the same thing with the new trees to "strike a [balance] between the trees' needs and the needs of pedestrians." But officials endorsed the bigger planters, saying it would give the trees more soil and help them live longer.
Street trees have a lot of health and environmental benefits. They can provide a feeling of enclosure on a street or sidewalk, calming traffic on busy streets like Georgia Avenue, and making pedestrians feel safer.
However, these planter boxes seem to provide the wrong kind of enclosure. Crowded sidewalks can be a good thing, creating a feeling of excitement and vitality on a city street. But when you push pedestrians and outdoor dining tables into too small a space, it can feel uncomfortable, and people won't want to stick around and spend money.
That's why restaurateur Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's, Sidebar, and Quarry House Tavern, all on Georgia Avenue, didn't want trees planted on the narrow sidewalk outside her businesses. "THIS WILL ELIMINATE MUCH OF MY PATIO SEATING!" she wrote in a 2010 email to DHCA. "This is NOT an improvement and is unnecessary, even undesirable." In the end, DHCA agreed not to plant any there.
Having healthy street trees and vibrant sidewalks aren't mutually exclusive. DHCA could have still created a bigger soil pit for the trees, giving them room to grow, while putting tree grates or permeable pavers on top, ensuring that there's still enough sidewalk space.
Wider sidewalks mean ample room for walking, for dining, and for nature. Photo by Jim Malone on Flickr.
And if county officials really wanted planters, they could have at least used a more attractive design, like these low, stone planters in NoMa that provide space for trees and plants while staying out of the way. Or they could have looked at a bioswale that cleans and filters stormwater in addition to looking pretty.
The real issue isn't the planters, but that the sidewalks on Georgia Avenue aren't appreciably wider. DHCA's project was simply to make the sidewalks meet ADA regulations.
This sidewalk may not get rebuilt for another 30 years, meaning we've missed an opportunity to have a larger conversation about how Georgia Avenue works. Wider sidewalks mean we wouldn't have to decide between landscaping, walking space, and outdoor seating. They mean we could have added new features, like benches, or a "shared use trail" for cyclists similar to the Green Trail on Wayne Avenue.
Doing this would require taking space for cars, which today constitutes the vast majority of Georgia Avenue, and giving it back to people. While that would probably be bad for drivers passing through, it would ultimately be a good thing for downtown Silver Spring, whose historic main street would become a more attractive, pleasant, and safer place to walk and spend time.
At first glance, the tree at the northeast corner of 8th and K Streets, NE appears to be buried in asphalt. The truth is much more interesting.
To comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, DDOT rebuilt the intersection of West Virginia Avenue NE, 8th Street and K Street in the H Street neighborood. This intersection is a busy transfer point between the 90 and D Metrobus lines and has a lot of foot traffic.
DDOT has installed modern curb ramps at all pedestrian crossings, and they've repaired the concrete in order to smooth out some potentially dangerous bumps. The elderly and disabled now have a smoother path to get from bus to bus as they travel across town.
(It would be nice if DDOT would restripe the crosswalks with higher-visibility zebra/piano striping, but perhaps that's a subject for another blog post.)
Within the project limits, there were two trees whose roots were lifting the sidewalk. This created dangerous tripping hazards and the narrowed sidewalks made it difficult for those in wheelchairs to use the sidewalk.
Instead of concrete, construction workers have used porous pavement in these areas that extend all the way around each tree. This makes the sidewalks a bit wider, eliminates the need to trim weeds around the base of the trees, and allows more water to filter through the ground to the trees' roots.
It will be interesting to see how well this pavement works, and if we'll be seeing it used more widely around town in the near future.
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:
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 cuttingWennerstrom'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.
— 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.
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 demolitionThis weekend, Wennerstrom followed up with an update:
— 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.
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).
Trees are an important part of any urban environment, providing shade, oxygen, and even calming traffic. Of course, they're also great to look at. As a result, protecting and expanding Montgomery County's tree canopy has been a growing issue in recent months.
A study by the University of Vermont for the Montgomery County Planning Department found that while half of the county is covered by trees, the county's urban areas have a much smaller tree canopy.
Just 19% of White Flint is covered by trees, while downtown Silver Spring has a 14% tree canopy. The smallest tree canopy is in the Montgomery Hills business district south of Georgia Avenue and the Beltway, which has just 8% coverage. Urban areas should have at least a 25% tree canopy, planners say.
One of the best ways to expand our tree canopy in places like downtown Silver Spring or White Flint is by planting more street trees next to sidewalks and in medians. Trees can provide significant health benefits and can even be an economic windfall for places with more of them.
A 2001 survey of Wheaton residents found they overwhelmingly preferred streets with trees for downtown Wheaton. According to urban designer Dan Burden, spending between $250 and $600 to plant a tree can yield up to $90,000 in economic benefits for the surrounding area.
For decades, transportation planners saw street trees as a safety hazard because they blocked drivers' vision. For that reason, County Executive Ike Leggett actually recommended removing street trees from busy roads in 2008. However, we know now that trees can "reduce the 'optical width'" of a street, slowing drivers down and making it safer for everybody.
Today, there are multiple efforts to add more street trees in Montgomery County. This fall, the Planning Department introduced a program called Shades of Green that provides free shade trees and two years of care to eligible property owners in downtown Silver Spring, downtown Wheaton and Montgomery Hills. 30 trees have already been planted under the program in those three areas.
Nonprofit group Conservation Montgomery has been organizing tree plantings of their own. Last month, they teamed up with Casey Trees, a forestry organization based in the District, to plant in Montgomery Hills. They've also received grant money in partnership with fellow nonprofits Safe Silver Spring and Uno Granito de Arena to plant trees in Long Branch.
Unfortunately, these efforts are undermined by poor maintenance of our existing tree canopy. After heavy storms last year, Pepco began trimming trees in earnest before falling branches could take down power lines. According to their website, Pepco uses nationally-recognized standards and practices for tree trimming, but residents complain they're being too aggressive, mangling trees and trespassing on private property.
Downtown Silver Spring resident Gull sent us some photos of Pepco workers cutting down trees along 16th Street and Spring Street last month. In an email, he called it a "serious quality of life issue" for him and his neighbors. "It's very easy to see into communities, houses and apartments that were once obscured from view," he wrote. "I see it as a big problem that instead of planting more trees in our urban areas, we're removing them and making above ground utilities the primary thing visible to us."
Last spring, County Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Marc Elrich drafted a bill that would set higher environmental standards for tree trimming and require power companies to ask homeowners' permission before doing any work on their property. However, the bill was deemed unconstitutional and set aside after the derecho storm in July brought down power lines and knocked out power to thousands of residents.
A felled tree next to a house under construction in Chevy Chase. Proposed legislation aims to help protect or replace trees like this.
Since then, the council has introduced two new pieces of legislation aimed at protecting trees. Bill 35-12 would require property owners cutting trees down on smaller lots to pay into a fund dedicated to replacing those trees. The county's Forest Conservation Law already requires this on lots over an acre in size. Another, Bill 41-12, would require a permit to do work in a public street that might damage a tree. They've set a public hearing later this month to hear testimony about both bills.
The legislation has support from Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, but has gotten a lot of pushback from local home builders. Renewing Montgomery, a group of small home builders, argued that the original bill proposed last summer restricts the rights of property owners.
As our urban areas grow, there's an inevitable tension between the built environment and the natural environment. However, protecting our tree canopy has many benefits for people as well. Whether by planting new trees or preserving old ones, we can make our communities healthier, stronger and more prosperous.
The County Council will hold a public hearing on both bills Thursday, January 17 at 7:30pm at the Council Office Building, 100 Maryland Avenue in Rockville. For more information and to sign up to testify, visit their website. You can also sign Conservation Montgomery's petition supporting both bills. And if you'd like to learn more about the tree canopy in your neighborhood, check out the Planning Department's tree canopy explorer.
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