Tree Removal Policy in the Back Bay

Policy for tree removal in Back Bay

As population increases in urban communities and the pressures of development result in the reduction of open spaces, more and more attention has been paid to the value and benefits of the urban forest and the need to increase the urban tree canopy (UTC). Trees in the urban environment provide many ecological services. They reduce air pollution by trapping particulate matter and absorbing pollutants in their leaves. These actions reduce human health problems related to air pollution. The tree canopy captures large amounts of rain, diverting it from overtaxed storm drainage systems, thus reducing the needs and costs of storm water management. Shade provided by the UTC reduces energy costs by 20% and help mitigate the effects of the urban heat island. Trees have an impact on the reduction of wind and noise. As trees grow they accumulate biomass that absorbs carbon and nutrients, locking them into a healthy biological cycle. The storage of carbon reduces the greenhouse effect linked to global warming. The storage of nutrients keeps them out of bodies of water where they could harm fish and other aquatic species. Trees also provide wildlife habitat, food, and shelter. It has also been demonstrated that trees can increase property values by as much as 10%.

Beyond these scientific benefits we know that trees have a calming effect on people. Some studies have shown that crime rates and violence are less in areas with trees and parks. Trees show that an area is cared for, they provide an environment for people to gather and build community, they enhance our quality of life and are a source of beauty.

Boston’s Urban Tree Canopy
Recognizing the importance of the UTC led our late Mayor Thomas Menino to establish the Grow Boston Greener Program. The goal of this program is to plant 100,000 trees by the year 2020. This would increase Boston’s UTC from the 2010 number of 29% to 35% by the year 2030. Over half of Boston’s neighborhoods have a UTC of 30%. Some neighborhoods like Chinatown, East Boston, and South Boston are less than 10%. Back Bay has a tree canopy of 23%.

For many years it has been the focus of NABB and the Garden Club of the Back Bay to care for and plant as many trees as possible in our neighborhood. We feel that the time is right for more specific guidelines and processes for tree removal and replacement in the Back Bay.

Trees in the Back Bay
In recent months there has been a growing concern about the increase in the number of requests to remove trees in the alleys of Back Bay. In 1998 the Garden Club of the Back Bay conducted an alley tree inventory covering the alleys between Arlington and Charlesgate East, and Back Street to Newbury Street. In 2010 this inventory was updated. It showed that there are currently 341 trees in these alleys. Of those, 171 are large trees many over 75 years old. 170 are smaller garden trees, many of them newly planted. In the last 12 years 78 large shade trees have been removed. This represents 45% of the large trees in the alleys.

As Back Bay has changed over the years, many of these trees have been removed to allow for parking. Most of the large alley trees are Ailanthus and are in decline or have not been cared for over the years. Some have grown as volunteers in tight spaces on property lines or too near buildings. These trees are at risk. Many units face primarily to the alleys and many units are accessed through the alleys or have back yard decks making the character of these spaces important from an aesthetic point of view as well as for scale and shade.

All of the advantages of urban trees mentioned above are lost when these trees are removed. It is our hope that these guidelines will help educate residents to the importance of all the trees in the Back Bay as well as provide a process by which we can insure the protection of the remaining trees and the establishment of a process for replanting.

The Guidelines for the Back Bay Residential District adopted by the Back Bay Architectural Commission in 1990 indicate that “replacement of landscaping in rear yards and parking areas is encouraged.” We therefore urge the BBAC to adopt an aggressive approach to encouraging the maintenance and expansion of the urban tree canopy by
1) retaining existing trees wherever possible and, if not, requiring replacement; and
2) requiring the planting of trees and preservation of existing trees as part of substantial renovation projects.

Tree removal policy

No tree may be removed without BBAC approval. Illegal removal of a tree will be brought to the Violations Committee for review and mitigation. Mitigation of negative effects by such methods as trimming and root reduction must be evaluated as an alternative to removal. Removal of a tree should be regarded as a last resort.
Sufficient reasons to remove trees:
The tree is dead or dying or damaged beyond repair;
The tree has a disease (like Dutch elm disease), which can spread to kill other trees;
The tree is a hazard and could result in injury to a person or damage to property; and
The tree is in such a place that it is compromising the integrity of a built
structure, like a wall or a foundation.
Damage to sewers that cannot be rectified in any other way.

Reasons not sufficient to remove trees:
The tree is disrupting the ground plane;
The tree is interfering with parking;
The tree has a disease which can be treated and is not endangering other trees; or
The tree is a volunteer

Other factors to consider in evaluating whether to remove or replace a tree:
Context: In addition to the above, consideration should be given to the overall “treescape” character of the site.  In some cases there might be overcrowding which results in poor growth habits, damage, or disfigurement of the existing trees. Thinning in such instances might promote greater health and longer survival of the remaining trees. Conversely, there may be very few mature trees in an area, which would become even more barren if removal were approved. 

Age and size: The age of the tree is also an important consideration. It is now estimated that the life of an urban tree could be as short at 15 years.  This makes the mature, large trees remaining in the neighborhood all the more valuable, as many of these newly planted trees will never reach their mature size.

Species: The species of the tree is another factor to consider.  For example, the BBAC has determined that ornamental trees of mid to small scale are appropriate for front yard plantings.  Shade trees and evergreens of large size may be considered inappropriate species in front yards.

Review Process
Applications for tree removal will be delayed for one month to allow adequate time for the necessary evaluation. The burden of proof will be on the applicant to prove sufficient reason for removal. Verification of claims that support removal will be required. A certified arborist must attest to the health of the tree and the feasibility of remedying identified problems without tree removal. If it disagrees with the analysis, the Garden Club of the Back Bay may, within 30 days of receipt of the analysis, submit a second opinion from its own arborist for consideration by the Commission. In cases where structural damage is claimed, a stamped letter from licensed structural engineer will be required.

If the Commission agrees to removal, a replacement tree will be required. This tree will be placed as close to the existing location as practical. Tree replacement should be done in consultation with the Garden Club of Back Bay.

Options for replacement locations (in order of preference):
1. On site, as close to the current location as feasible;
2. Elsewhere on site; or
3. In a street tree pit, preferably nearby (except on Commonwealth Avenue).
4. If no planting location is possible, owner may be asked to contribute to the planting and maintenance of trees in the Back Bay by making a contribution to the Parks Department, the Garden Club of the Back Bay, or the Commonwealth Avenue Mall Committee for planting and maintenance of trees in the Back Bay.

New tree planting
When a building is being substantially renovated, every effort should be made to install a tree in accordance with the above replacement guidelines. Where rear yards are being resurfaced, tree planting is strongly encouraged.