Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

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 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).

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.