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A Somerville Tree Saga: Redefining Private Property

Posted by Patrick Smith  January 20, 2014 06:32 PM

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Time out.

This time around, I don't want to talk about airlines, airports or airplanes.

I want to talk about trees.

That's right, trees. Specifically, I want to talk about the decision made by a Somerville neighbor of mine to fell an old, beautiful, and perfectly healthy tree because it was "in the way" of his backyard improvement project -- in the process adversely affecting the quality of life for me and several of my neighbors.

Is it crazy or un-American to suggest that, at a certain point, a tree is no longer one person's private property per se, and belongs to the community? And at that point, should the property owner be restricted as to what he or she may do with said tree?

I first started asking these questions seven or eight years ago, when the person who owns the house across the street from me decided to chop down the large healthy tree in his front yard.  I really liked that tree.  In addition to being attractive in and of itself, it did the whole neighborhood a service by concealing the front facade of the guy's house, which -- there's no polite way of putting this -- is one of the ugliest and tackiest house on the block.  It also hid the unsightly tangle of power lines and cables that are strung across the street.

He cut the entire thing down because, as it was explained to me by another neighbor, it was "attracting squirrels" and "dropping too many leaves."

Then, this past spring, the people who live next door decided to chop down one of their trees. I liked this tree because its canopy reached over into our driveway and yard, providing shade, attracting birds (we have a very active feeder) and drawing attention away from our rather unattractive garage.

They cut it down because it was "messy."

Again I was angry, but what saved me from all-out rage was the fact that directly behind this tree, in the next yard over, diagonal to mine and belonging to a man on Appleton Street, was the Big Tree.  

The Appleton Street tree must have been close to a hundred years-old, and had one of those great, wide canopies that was just beautiful to look at.  It gave definition to the entire neighborhood, and the birds and squirrels loved it. Removal of the smaller tree over the garage was perhaps unfortunate, but so long as the Big Tree was still there, things weren't too terribly changed.  

Until this past weekend, that is, when I woke to the sound of chainsaws. The guy on Appleton decided it was time for the Big Tree to go.  

In a matter of a few hours' work, the entire thing was gone.  

The tree was not sick; the homeowner destroyed it, I learned second-hand, because it was "in the way" of a work-shed he wants to build in his yard.

The whole aesthetic of the block now is changed -- for the worse. Suddenly when I look out the back of my house to where this fantastic tree used to be, there's just empty sky and the rear facades of the neighbors' houses.  The lighting, view, the feel... everything is different.  

And he had every right to do this, apparently, which surprises me. How, in what is supposed to be such a progressive-thinking city with such a strong sense of community, can there be no zoning rules or other restrictions when it comes to cutting down trees?  

I complained to Rebekah Gewirtz, the alderperson for the Somerville ward in which I live. Gewirtz explained that several years ago she was able to put through a tree preservation ordinance protecting shade trees -- but the rules cover only those on public property.

"It was difficult to pass at the time and there was push back from other aldermen," Gewirtz says. "At one point during the deliberations I suggested we also broaden the ordinance to cover healthy shade tress on private property. This idea at the time was dismissed out of hand by several of my colleagues who felt the city shouldn't tell private owners what to do with trees on their property."

So, ultimately this is a debate about private property. But what is private property?

I am all for the rights of property owners to do more or less as they please -- to a point. And that point is when an owner's decision directly and adversely impacts the quality of life of those around him. Quality of life is subjective, of course, but in this case criteria ought to include everything from the view out of peoples' windows, to the ecological health of the neighborhood, to the potential impact on property values. When that point is reached, there needs at least to be a discussion.

Last summer, my landlord rebuilt the small, two-story rear porch of our house. Doing so required him to secure a permit, and mandated strict adherence to all sorts of building code specs: railing height, electricity access, lighting, and so on. Just getting the post-holes dug to what the city deemed acceptable depth became a back-and-forth of requests and denials between my landlord and City Hall before finally he was allowed to proceed.

Remodeling a rear porch is a bureaucratic headache that takes several days to sort out. But a guy can, at his whim, alter the look and feel of a whole neighborhood, with no accountability at all? How do the property rights advocates who dismissed Gewirtz's proposal "out of hand" square with that (other than to invoke the expected clause that anything in the name of safety is fair game and tops all other concerns)?

And I sense the opposing arguments on the way. Private property is private property, end of story. But are you sure? if a homeowner chooses to build a giant, 75-foot tall fluorescent pink sculpture in his yard, is that okay, even if his four nearest neighbors' living rooms are each less than fifty feet away?

(And keep in mind the closeness of properties here in Somerville -- the most densely populated city in America. Maybe, if you're in the suburbs or further from the city, you can't quite relate to this debate, but for some of us urbanites, even a single tree makes a gigantic difference in the way a property looks and feels.)

I admit to having a soft spot for trees. I'm known to vacation in tropical rainforests and my Christmas tree -- the same one every year -- is a living, repurposed Norfolk pine that I saved from somebody's curbside trash pile. But this isn't about the irrational or emotional inclinations of a "tree-hugger," or about the pushing of some environmentalist agenda on others. It's about common sense, decency, and basic respect for both nature and community.

I think. Perhaps I'm wrong. In other words, a person has the right to do whatever he or she wishes, so long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of somebody else. And unfortunately, nobody has the legal right to a view.

Sadly, whatever the answer, you can't simply put back a century-old tree. The one behind Appleton Street is gone forever, and the neighborhood cannot undo that loss.


Follow-up note from the author:

Comments to this story seem to be harping on the fact that I'm a renter and not an owner; that neither property involved in this story belongs to me. I fail to see how or why that matters in the greater context of my argument. It feels to me like a loophole-ish way of invalidating my points. - PS


This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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