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Newton Cemetery seeks exemption from city’s tree ordinance to expand burial space

The Newton Cemetery Corporation wants to remove 219 rees from an undeveloped 4-acre grove on the cemetery’s property. The project plan includes planting 743 smaller-sized trees to replace them.Cici Yu

The Newton Cemetery and Arboretum is again facing a balancing act between its role in the community as an arboretum and a place to bury loved ones. With an estimated four more years of burial space and 10 more years of urn space, the cemetery has applied for an exemption from a city ordinance in order to remove 219 trees to make way for new burial plots.

“Depending on the type of burial space, we have different timelines projected for when we’ll run out of space,” said Mary Ann Buras, president of the cemetery corporation. “We asked for the exemption because we felt that the way it’s written really doesn’t apply to organizations like ours, and we’re an accredited arboretum, and we follow best operating practices.”

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If they develop the land, Buras said, the cemetery will add 15 years of burial and 60 years of urn space.

The Newton Cemetery Corporation filed its exemption request to the director of Urban Forestry on March 14 to move forward with their plan — the project is called the Knoll — to remove the trees from an undeveloped 4-acre grove on the cemetery’s property. The project plan includes planting 743 smaller-sized trees to replace those slated for removal.

The director of Urban Forestry, Marc Welch, denied the cemetery request for an exemption to move the trees March 15 because the cemetery’s proposal for the amount of trees they aim to replace the removed ones with fell short of what is required by the city’s Tree Preservation Ordinance. The cemetery appealed Welch’s decision to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller March 16.

Welch referred a request for comment to Ellen Ishikanian, the director of Community Communications for Newton, who wrote in an email that the mayor is “currently reviewing the request from the cemetery.”

The Knoll is the second phase of a two-part “Master Plan,” the first phase of which — the 2013 Dell project — went through a similar process, Buras said.

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“The permit was rejected at that time, too,” Buras said. “We went to the mayor at the time, Setti Warren, and asked for the same relief, and we were granted relief from the tree ordinance at that time. So, we also feel a precedent was set.”

Former city councilor Amy Sangiolo said the loss of mature trees — and the environmental impact it generates — is concerning.

“How serious are we about the contributing factors of mature trees and their effect on the environment?” Sangiolo said. “The planting of new, young trees does not equate to the old growth trees and mature trees in terms of the amount of carbon that they absorb and take out of the environment.”

Joseph Drake, president of nonprofit organization the Newton Tree Conservancy, said the cemetery should reevaluate the proposal because its tree replacement figure doesn’t meet the city’s tree ordinance requirements.

“Our stance is that either the cemetery should rethink their plans, and about what they want to do, or at a minimum that Mark Welch’s initial decision should stand,” Drake said.

Buras, in a letter to Welch, wrote that the proposed plan “unavoidably falls short of the total [inches in diameter at breast height] of existing trees to be removed” by 1,558 inches. At the same time, she wrote, doing otherwise would represent a “significant hardship” for the cemetery.

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The ordinance requires new trees be “same or equivalent” in diameter at breast height — the diameter, in inches, of a mature tree trunk at standing height — in order for them to be removed.

If Fuller denies the proposal, Buras said in an interview the cemetery would be required to make a payment to the city’s Tree Preservation Fund — an incentive within the Tree Preservation Ordinance aiming to dissuade private developers from removing large trees from their property — in the amount of $311,600.

In a separate letter to Fuller, Buras said she was concerned with the potential fine.

“The financial burden placed on the Cemetery would impact the future economic stability of our non-profit, affecting maintenance projects, perpetual care obligations and the integrity of the historic resource so significant to the fabric of our city,” Buras wrote in the letter.

Newton City Council President Susan Albright said when the cemetery runs out of burial space, a trust — consisting of money used to purchase plots — will be used to finance the maintenance of the grounds.

“All of the trustees of the cemetery are all Newton people, and they are trying to be financially and fiscally appropriate,” Albright said of the cemetery’s proposal for the development of the Knoll project. “And if we interrupt their plans for that, that seems totally wrong to me.”

The Newton Conservators, a nonprofit group advocating for the preservation of natural spaces in Newton, said in an April 29 letter to Fuller that the cemetery is beneficial to the community, but they do not believe it should be “permanently exempt” from the city’s ordinance.

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“This ordinance was designed primarily to discourage the unnecessary removal of mature trees for purposes such as the redevelopment of residential or commercial property,” Chris Hepburn, co-president of the Conservators, wrote in the letter.

In contrast to this typical situation, the Conservators said in the letter, the Newton Cemetery has “committed itself to extensive future tree plantings, mostly of native species, through its adopted long-term landscape management plan.”

Walker Armstrong and Cici Yu can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.