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Newton officials consider one-year moratorium, tighter rules on cutting trees on private property

Deciduous trees with their leaves late into the season in December 2017.Suzanne Kreiter

Newton city councilors are considering a one-year moratorium on cutting down mature trees on private property, as well as a pair of proposals for a stronger tree preservation ordinance amid concerns that the Garden City’s brilliant green canopy has faded over the past half-century.

The ordinance proposals -- including one backed by city councilors Emily Norton and Julia Malakie and several of their colleagues, and a separate measure filed by Mayor Ruthanne Fuller -- would expand Newton’s existing tree preservation ordinance, and apply it to more trees that are located on private property.

The measures come as much of the state has grappled with severe or extreme drought, and amid mounting evidence that climate change has made droughts more intense, including in New England.

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“When you consider all the benefits that trees provide, it seems crazy that we are so cavalier with our rules towards them, and really not putting limits on what people can do,” Norton said in a phone interview.

The councilors’ proposed ordinance “is just a way to look at how it would [be] if we treated trees and had rules around trees commensurate with their value,” she said.

Fuller, in a letter to city councilors outlining her proposal, listed the benefits of trees on private property, including reducing energy needs, improving air quality, and enhancing “the overall sense of community [that] residents and visitors to Newton experience.”

“It is important that we protect this canopy and insure responsible stewardship,” Fuller wrote.

Newton established its rules governing tree cutting on private property more than 20 years ago, and they were last updated in 2014.

The proposals from the councilors and the mayor differ on specific details, but proponents for each measure said their goal is to preserve the city’s trees, according to city filings.

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Both measures include provisions such as expanding the number of trees protected under the ordinance; tightening requirements for tree replacement or making mitigation payments for removing trees; and offering protections for trees located on lots abutting properties undergoing activities like construction, according to the filings.

The moratorium proposed by a group of councilors including Norton and Malakie is intended to give councilors time to review the changes, and prevent people from trying to clear trees in anticipation of stricter regulations, according to Norton.

Under the proposals, trees could still be removed if they are dead, diseased, or in danger of falling. Similar rules are included in the current city tree protection ordinance.

“Newton needs to take action,” Norton and Malakie told their colleagues in their memo.

Trees, particularly in urban areas, help keep neighborhoods healthy, provide valuable shade, and help keep places cool in warm months. They also help clean the air of pollution, protect against topsoil erosion, absorb the noise of vehicle traffic, and can help combat climate change by pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

More than a third of Newton is covered by leafy green tree canopy that includes about 20,000 street trees, according to a city open space and recreation plan released last year.

But that natural cover is dwindling. The city’s street tree population is about half of the 40,000 trees recorded in the early 1970s, according to the city open space report. Newton is currently losing about 800 to 1,000 trees per year, the city report said.

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The report said many mature trees on private property are being lost as “development and redevelopment continue” in Newton.

The city’s existing tree preservation ordinance regulates exterior construction work near trees and tree removal on private property, according to the city. It may apply to trees with a diameter of at least 8 inches, measured from about four-and-a-half feet off the ground, located on private properties.

But there are exemptions allowing for a tree to be cut down if a property meets certain conditions: the property is used primarily as a dwelling for up to four families; it is owned by the same person for at least 90 days before any tree removal; and that ownership must continue for 18 months after trees are taken down.

Norton and Malakie are proposing greater protections, such as expanding the ordinance to apply to trees with a 6-inch diameter, and eliminating the current exemptions.

“Current lax rules around tree removal do not take into account the science-based public benefits of trees, nor the harm to the public and the environment in destroying them,” Norton and Malakie said.

Fuller said her proposal, which she said was the result of work by City Forester Marc Welch, would protect trees with a diameter of at least 55 inches on all lots. It would also protect trees with a diameter of 6 inches or larger on residential lots with at least three housing units, as well as all commercial lots.

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On residential lots with one or two housing units, trees with a diameter of at least 6 inches would be protected if construction is planned within two years, under Fuller’s proposal. An exemption permit could be issued for trees under 55 inches in diameter on those properties if no construction is planned within that period.

“These revisions will ensure greater protection of the City’s tree canopy [in] this time of critical environmental need by increasing the number of trees protected and planted while providing better oversight,” Fuller said in a statement to the Globe.

Norton, in the interview, compared the city’s rules governing trees on private property to rules that now prohibit people from burning leaves, or dumping oil onto the ground.

“The things that happen on your property do affect other people’s health and safety. And we should have our rules and regulations reflect that,” Norton said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.