DC street trees. Photo by shioshvili.

Few government actions impact homeowners’ properties as quickly or as irrevocably as cutting down trees.

A leafy canopy makes a street far more desirable and valuable. It’s no wonder, then, that residents get very upset when their government removes trees. Sometimes trees have to go; disease can kill them, and if a tree falls, that impacts the homeowner immediately and even literally.

At other times, however, arborists can disagree about whether a tree has to go. We have a honey locust tree in our backyard that lost a limb after another tree fell on it (and the house’s previous owner’s car) during a storm. About half the aborists we talk to say the tree should come out, since it might fall over one day. The other half say that these trees are nearly indestructible, and unless it starts dying, we have nothing to worry about. We like the shade. What to do? For now, we’re keeping it. We hope we’re right.

That tree is on private property. But if it were a street tree, DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration could simply decide to take it out. DDOT has policies that they should notify homeowners, and the Council has considered laws to require notification. But those aren’t always followed.

On Monday, DDOT cut down six trees on the 1700 block of Corcoran Street, NW. According to ANC Commissioner Bob Meehan, one tree was definitely a hazard and had to go, but others were at the very least open to debate. Meehan wrote,

The trees in front of 1760 Corcoran (cut down two weeks ago), and 1751 and 1732 Corcoran (cut down today)  were removed solely on the basis of one forester’s judgment that the trees were failing in some manner. This does not necessarily imply that there was ever any imminent danger to the public or that they couldn’t have survived for many more years.

I have a Master Gardener Certificate and can attest that the tree in front of 1732, a female, was probably on its last legs and had lost several large limbs in recent years. However, I did not get a satisfactory answer justifying destroying the other two trees.

They were removed today, prior to community feedback, simply because equipment to do the job was already around the corner to remove two trees on the 1700 block of Q St at the request of residents. It is DDOT policy to confer with residents prior to taking down trees that don’t pose immediate danger.  This policy was totally ignored.

The three remaining trees were female ginko trees. Mr. Thomas apologized and said that his staff were wrong to cut down these trees. The trees should have stayed put unless the owners in front of the trees initiated a petition to remove them a nd 60% of their neighbors signed the petition. There had been no petition. Instead, there was just the presence of DDOT’s equipment from Q St and a desire by DDOT staff to remove female ginkos.

This lack of communication is particularly frustrating because in other situations communication had been good.  For example,  the basis for the recent removal of female ginko trees (and their replacement by certified male ginkos) on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Corcoran St was a mutually-negotiated agreement between the city and the residents.

In replies, other residents spoke up in favor of removing the tree at 1751 Corcoran and agreeing with Meehan’s assessment on 1732. Others noted that there had been complaints about the smell of the female ginkgos. There is no definitive evidence that the tree removals were wrong. However, they were clearly not communicated.

The Urban Forestry Administration has to manage many trees with few staff. They can’t afford to teach every resident all about arboriculture every time they want to cut or prune a tree. However, it’s also understandable that residents will want some communication and assurance about upcoming tree cutting. A tree takes decades to grow. A pruned limb never comes back. UFA needs to find some way to better communicate with residents.

At the end of September, tree crews started pruning various trees on my block. I was happy to give DDOT the benefit of the doubt, but wanted to find out what was planned and for which trees. However, numerous emails to UFA head John Thomas and Ward 2 arborist Munevver Ertem went unanswered. Ms. Ertem even told me on the phone that while normally they would email their database entries about a block’s trees to residents, because of my blog she would have to check with others; I never got the information.

Eventually, the tree crew got around to the tree in front of my house. When I spoke to them about my desire to keep as much of the tree as possible, they said that they could certainly prune less than the standard, which is to cut all branches six feet away from any buildings. Like many on our block, that tree extends over our house, which I personally like for the added shade in summer.

Ms. Ertem also told me that an arborist had reviewed the block in May and scheduled the trees for pruning. That means from May to September, DDOT had a plan to prune the trees, but nobody knew about it. Nobody . I have no specific objection to any decisions of the arborist, but residents should have the opportunity to weigh in on the judgment calls, like how much to prune, and to know about what’s planned.

UFA has a detailed database of street tress. DDOT should make that database available publicly. It will inevitably lead to more questions from affected residents, but answering questions is something our government officials should do.

Meehan has arranged for UFA’s John Thomas and DDOT Director Gabe Klein to attend next Wednesday’s ANC 2B meeting.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.