Tree-lined Swann Street. Photo by edwhitaker.

Last night, residents of S Street NW between 15th and 17th discovered Emergency No Parking signs stating that the trees on the block would be removed. The residents had not known about any tree removal, nor had the local ANC commissioners. The blocks had already lost several mature trees in recent years, and residents worried about losing more.

An hour, several DC Council staff, some representatives of the Mayor, and some frantic calls to DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration later, everyone found out the truth. Only three trees on the two blocks were coming down. These trees were either dead or seriously damaged in recent storms, but, according to ANC Commissioner Jack Jacobson, “There was evidently a problem that the contractor had decided timing on removing the trees and had not properly consulted with DDOT, much less the neighborhood.”

This resembles a similar controversy last year. DDOT removed some trees in Kalorama Park. At first, neighbors and members of the Council were outraged that DDOT had taken these trees down with no notice. Later, they discovered that the organization which helps maintain the park had been asking to remove the trees for years. The ANC had known about the request when it was first made, but it hadn’t come before them recently. The Department of Parks and Recreation hadn’t done anything about it. Trees in parks later became DDOT’s responsibility, so DDOT moved ahead with the preexisting request.

These tree controversies haven’t hinged on the professional judgement of DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration. They seem to make decisions thoughtfully and reasonably. However, when residents hear about the tree removals at the last minute, for whatever reason, it’s natural to become upset. This is a common criticism of DDOT. The professionals at that organization very frequently make the right choice, but without communication, they don’t get credit for their good work.

Last year, Councilmember Jim Graham introduced a bill to require more notice before DDOT removes trees, unless there is an imminent danger. Jack Evans, whose ward includes today’s tree scare, also cosponsored the legislation. The Council didn’t act on it, but perhaps the Council should revive the legislation. Or, better yet, DDOT would fix their processes to ensure that, when possible, neighbors and ANCs get reasonable notice. In almost all cases, I’m sure the neighbors and ANC representatives will conclude, as in these cases, that DDOT’s expert arborists know what they are doing.

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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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.