The view of several of the white pines in question from an abutter’s home. (Photo Courtesy of Jerry Harris)

The Town hosted a public forum via a Zoom webinar Thursday with staff from multiple departments – including the Town Manager, Department of Public Works Director, Recreation Director and Town Counsel – to discuss the fate of 37 mature white pine trees near the Town tennis courts, and the rationale behind the Town’s plan to remove them. Over 70 community members attended the webinar, according to Director of Recreation & Community Programs Melissa Battite.

  • Why the Town asked an arborist to examine these trees: Last fall the Town’s installation of new lights in the Center Recreation Area prompted some residents to be concerned that the roots of 37 white pine trees were being damaged by the contractor’s trucks. The Department of Public Works collaborated with the residents to initiate a review process and hired an arborist to assess the trees. To the residents’ distress, though, the arborist’s report uncovered far more serious issues with the trees than anticipated, beyond the roots and seemingly unrelated to the trucks, leading to the recommendation of their removal. This outcome was the exact opposite of what anyone, especially the residents who’d asked for the review in the first place, had wanted. Now, over 300 residents have asked for the Town to hear a second opinion on whether the trees need to come down, and to hold off on cutting down the trees in the meantime.
  • The arborist’s report chronicled serious issues in many trees: The Town contracted arborist Tom Brady (yes, that’s his name), who has decades of experience and said at the forum that he “can talk about trees for hours.” Brady assessed the trees in question in early January this year, and sent the Town Tree Warden, Christopher Filadoro, a two-page report summarizing his findings about the 37 white pines Feb. 18. Brady’s “purpose was to conduct an inspection of the root zone, stem, and canopy of the trees as a tool to assess overall health, structure, and stability,” he wrote in his assessment. But Brady was dismayed by his findings – especially by the fact that 24 of the 37 had co-dominant stems, per his report, which he estimated had first developed decades ago. Worse, he found “vertical cracks” and “seepage” in many of these trees among multiple signs of serious structural concern. Brady also found that the root zones, extending deep into the “active yards” of residents on one side and under the tennis courts on the other, had been “impacted by intrusions,” which he said is true of “many trees in suburban environments” and is less of a problem than the stem issues, despite the source of original resident concern. Finally, he wrote of observing “a bit more deadwood than I would like to see in White Pines of this size and age” in the canopies. “Decay in itself is not a problem – it’s the extent of the decay and the location of the decay,” he summarized at Thursday’s forum.
  • If the trees failed, they could damage surrounding houses or the Rec Center – or hurt people in these locations: The upshot, for Brady, was that “we have a stand of trees that is of the same species, the same age, with the same structural defects.” And “structural failure of moderate size,” e.g. if a tree branch were to fall on the tennis courts or on surrounding houses, “could have a significant impact,” he wrote. While in some cases, it’s possible to relocate or remove targets to reduce risk, “it is neither possible nor practical to relocate entire houses and yards and/or entire recreational facilities,” he explained. Brady also considered “mitigation strategies for the trees themselves such as crown reduction, or cabling and bracing.” But he concluded that “given the size, age and species of the trees…such mitigation strategies would not be effective in this case.” He added that trees within this row have previously suffered structural failures – another cause for concern. 
  • Reaching the “difficult conclusion” that the trees have to come down: Brady fully acknowledged the importance of these trees to community members, especially abutters: “It is clear these trees have stood and served many generations of Lexington residents,” he wrote in his report, calling their long life in the community “fantastic” during the forum. But between his site visit, observations of previous failures, “consistency in the age and condition of the tree community in question” and the lack of other ways “to reduce risk in the trees themselves, combined with no clear path to reduce the targets in the area,” he reached the “difficult conclusion” that “strong consideration be given to the removal of the trees in question.” Department of Public Works Director Dave Pinsonneault and Tree Warden Filadoro “concur with this assessment,” according to an April 5 memorandum from Town Manager Jim Malloy to the Select Board. During the April 14 forum, Matt Foti, a local practicing arborist, added that he independently agreed with Brady’s findings, and said he was especially alarmed by one of the trees leaning out over the tennis court with a “huge crack” which he thought required immediate action. 
  • Nobody likes removing trees – least of all an arborist: In the forum, Brady stressed that he never likes to recommend removing trees and does not make this recommendation lightly: “It distresses me when I find what I find,” he said. In younger years as an arborist, he said he did “severe crown reduction” – essentially, pruning – but this can actually accelerate tree decline and decay, because it removes the trees’ food source and saps their strength, he said.
  • Legal responsibility for the Town: In his April 5 memo, Malloy explained that the findings of Brady’s report meant that the Town needed to act to avoid legal liability should the trees structurally fail. The trees are defined as “Town trees,” and “once the Town is aware that there is a maintenance need on public property” – which they would be, in this case, due to Brady’s report – “the Town may be subject to legal claims that the Town had a duty to act on that report to ensure a tree failure does not result in injury, death or destruction of property,” he wrote. Though the Town’s liability is limited by state law, any litigation would still cost the Town time and money, Malloy added. “While the Town has no desire to remove healthy trees, we do have an interest to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents, visitors and property and to limit the Town’s legal exposure,” Malloy summarized. “It would be irresponsible for the Town to leave hazardous trees in place and therefore these trees should be removed.” 
  • A phased removal was proposed – but residents asked to hit pause: The DPW Director and Tree Director met with some abutting residents in mid-March to discuss a phased tree removal “to reduce the overall impact.” But many residents could not make the meeting, according to resident and abutter Jerry Harris, who described himself as “spokesperson for a 300+ group of concerned current and former residents.” What’s more, he said they’d been expecting to hear updates about how to take care of and preserve these trees – so it was a shock to hear that all 37 of them needed to come down, and they decided they wanted a second opinion. They hired their own arborist, Normand Helie, to take a second look; Helie is still finishing his report, Harris said, but has so far suggested “that co-dominant branches can be structurally sound as long as the trees have not developed ‘included bark,’” which he said Helie did not observe, Harris wrote in a follow-up statement. Helie recommends “removing apical dominance” rather than “crown reduction pruning,” Harris added.
  • A desire among residents to look at the trees individually: Many residents asked the Town to look for any way to not remove all 37 trees, even if some must go, and want to ensure that Brady, and the Town, had and would give each individual tree due consideration. Pinsonneault said the Town had asked Brady to do individual tree assessments given resident interest, but noted this will take time.
  • Concerns about environmental impacts, loss of a visual, noise barrier: During Thursday’s forum, many residents expressed concerns about the potential effects of removing these trees. Some pointed to the negative environmental impacts of removing trees. Others expressed concern about the loss of the visual and, especially, noise screen between the Center Recreation Area and the houses, and noted that the high school would soon be under construction nearby.
  • A personal sense of loss for residents: “Everyone knows those trees. They’re iconic,” Harris told LexObserver. “All the abutters have their presence in our lives – and it’s a nice presence.” To Harris and others, the decision to cut down all 37 feels “drastic” and “irreversible.” A few residents even described a connection they saw between the loss of these trees and unrelated growth in overall development of megamansions around town, seeming to express a sense that losing these trees would become part of bigger changes to the physical fabric of the Town for the worse. During the forum, one resident called the loss of these trees a “tragic, unbelievable situation.” 
  • A commitment to replanting no matter what: The Town intends to collaborate with residents in a replanting process to plant a variety of trees following the removal of the white pines, Pinsonneault said. Ideally, they would replant in the fall to shield the saplings from the heat of summer and to take the time to develop a solid replanting plan, he added. Multiple residents asked that the Town try to replant native species. 
  • Moving forward: Pinsonneault said the Town would be glad to have dialogue with Helie, the residents’ arborist, about any differences in his assessment of how to handle these trees, while Brady continues his tree-by-tree assessment. Pinsonneault also said he would prioritize communicating proactively with residents, including with a schedule for the tree removal. He added that the Town has been working on a tree inventory to help keep tabs on and coordinate care for all its trees, which he expects to go live soon. In addition to caring for existing trees, the Town plants about 130 trees per year, he estimated.
  • Concern about the webinar format: Harris and another attendee said they found the webinar meeting format undemocratic due to the separation between panelists and attendees. Malloy and Battite responded that webinars can help prevent Zoom bombing.

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