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Tree Removal Moratorium Vote Heads Back to City Council

Cambridge City Hall
Cambridge City Hall is located near Central Square.

UPDATED: Feb. 20, 2019 at 8:29 a.m.

The Cambridge Ordinance Committee voted to send a tree protection amendment back to the City Council at a public hearing Thursday night.

The proposed moratorium is part of an ongoing city effort to aid tree canopy conservation. If adopted, the amendment would impose a one-year ban on tree cutting permits except in special circumstances, such as for trees classified as dead or dangerous by the city arborist. Any violations of the proposed ban would be subject to municipal fines up to $5,000.

The City Council had previously debated this amendment during a meeting in January, but voted at the time to refer it back to the Ordinance Committee.

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During Thursday’s hearing, several committee members said they support tree protection, but expressed concerns about the amendment in its current form. Councillor E. Denise Simmons flagged issues of resident notification and inadequate mechanisms to effectively enforce fines.

Mayor Marc C. McGovern reiterated Simmons’ concerns about resident awareness.

“We had better be really good at notice, and sometimes, we’re not,” McGovern said.

McGovern also raised concerns about the violation fines, which he described as “not insignificant” to many Cambridge residents.

“I’m worried about the unintended consequences,” he said. “To me this is an economic justice issue in some ways.”

Dozens of Cambridge residents shared their views during a period for public input. Susan R. Donaldson ‘71, a Cambridge resident and climate activist, joined several other residents in support of the moratorium effort, calling tree canopy conservation a “public health good.”

“Trees are one of our big protectors,” she said.

Some speakers criticized the amendment process and what they called poor public communication. Cambridge resident Susan Ringler ‘74 said she believes the Council is “delaying and delaying and delaying.” Ringler also said she was “ashamed” of the Cambridge Department of Public Works for not outlining more specifics pertinent to the amendment.

“I find it appalling,” she said.

The Cambridge Department of Public Works Commissioner Owen O'Riordan wrote in an emailed statement that the department believes their proposal is "reasonable."

“We respect all of the commentary provided by both Councilors and members of the community associated with this matter. At this time, we believe that which we are proposing be required of arborists, associated with the regulations, is a reasonable requirement," he wrote.

Though many attendees advocated for the amendment, several residents argued that the moratorium is still too vague to be adopted.

Nancy Donohue, the director of Government and Community Relations for the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, said she spoke on behalf of Chamber members in expressing reservations about a proposal that is “short on specifics.”

“We are concerned about the unintended consequences for small property owners,” she said.

Councillor Quinton Y. Zondervan argued in favor of bringing the amendment back in front of the Council. Zondervan previously voted against delaying the amendment’s adoption, arguing postponement would be harmful to tree canopy conservation. After the hearing, Zondervan said he was encouraged by the public input the committee received.

“I think the discussion with the committee and staff was very productive, he said. “I’m very satisfied and pleased.”

According to Zondervan, the amendment could be officially adopted as early as Feb. 25, when the City Council convenes their next meeting.

—Declan J. Knieriem can be reached at declan.knieriem@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DeclanKnieriem.

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