, Salem, MA

March 7, 2013

City considers new bylaw to save trees

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — Woodman, spare that tree. Or at least pay up if you want it chopped down.

That’s the message the city hopes to send after city councilors learned that state law allows just about anyone to point a finger at a tree on public property, including a perfectly healthy tree, and direct Peabody officials to chop it down — at city expense. The cost can run as high as $8,000 per tree.

When she heard about it, City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin said, “I just about fell out of my chair.”

Jennifer Pinkham Davis, director of the city’s parks and recreation department, told the council’s Subcommittee on Legal Affairs that under state law, if a person asks for a tree to be cut down, that launches a process that begins with the city examining the tree. If the tree is healthy and no danger to others, the city can decline to take it down.

But here’s where the fun begins. Someone determined to see the tree leveled can then launch a petition to have it cut down. They must pay for an ad announcing a hearing, but unless some resident appears at the hearing on behalf of the tree, the ax will fall.

“We have to remove it,” said Davis, who cites some relatively frivolous reasons that trees have been targeted in the past. “People want a tree down because it puts leaves on their lawn or because it blocks the sun at certain times.”

Also, taking down a tree is at least a three-man operation, and, as the department has only three people available, it often means hiring an independent contractor.

Up to now, the cost and damage has been limited, Davis said, thanks to Peabody’s “tree-huggers.” These are people who scour the legal notices. Whenever they spot an endangered tree, they make it their business to check out the condemned, assure themselves that it is a healthy tree of no danger to anyone, and then show up at the hearing and plead for mercy.

Additionally, the mayor has the power to give the tree a pardon.

Dick Walker, the former parks and recreation director, would often go to “war” to save the trees, Davis remembered.

“I witnessed those wars,” she told the council at last Thursday’s meeting.

Davis is recommending a new ordinance to save Peabody the expense and aggravation that this process can create. The new bylaw would send that $8,000 bill to the person demanding the destruction of a healthy tree. What’s more, anyone who wants to play Paul Bunyan would have to be Johnny Appleseed, as well: Chop down a healthy tree, and you’ll have to plant a new one somewhere.

The new bylaw would also ban drive-by tree removals. Presently, someone can condemn a tree they happen to pass on the street. The new ordinance would require anyone demanding the death of a healthy tree to live within 100 yards of it.

The ordinance still requires some “tweaking,” Manning-Martin said, before it is presented to the legal affairs subcommittee at a future date.