Trees cleared for house construction along South Street/ Credit: Needham Observer

How Needham deals with trees has been at the root of many discussions in recent years. Everyone loves them — but not necessarily on their property or if they affect construction they wish to do. Many residents want to protect them at all cost, others want the right to raze anything on privately owned land. And with the most recent and ever more frequent flooding, what does a lack of trees mean for homeowners? 

The town has gone round and round with these questions and is slated to do so again early in 2024 with a Tree Summit. But the situation is complicated, enforcing regulations around trees is unwieldy, and the many stakeholders are often at odds.

Needham is a designated Tree City USA, with four certified arborists on staff. Superintendent of Parks and Forestry Edward Olsen, the town’s tree warden and president of the Massachusetts Tree Wardens and Foresters Association, said Needham is committed to preserving its trees. 

“The mantra we’ve had at Mass. Tree Wardens is, ‘right tree, right location,'” he said. “I think we live that through our own forestry efforts. Our role as Needham forestry, and my role, is to protect the trees from the public as well as protect the public from trees.” This means that sometimes it is better for a tree to come down than not to fell it for the sake of leaving it in place. Olsen said leaving a diseased or dangerous tree can result in it falling unpredictably and causing significant damage, if not worse. 

Other towns and cities in the area such as Wellesley and Newton have established tree bylaws. But Olsen said preserving trees is not as simple as instituting a bylaw, and often people conflate the idea of a tree bylaw with zoning laws. 

Tree removal along Central Ave./ Credit: Needham Observer

“Trees aren’t the problem, it’s the houses that replace the small ranch houses that’s the big issue in town that I see,” he said. “If we’re allowing builders to build these massive homes, that could be changed by zoning. It’s not what’s above ground, it’s what’s below ground with trees. Flooding occurs because of the impervious surface, which has to do with the size of the home, not just the trees.” 

When considering a bylaw for Needham, Olsen sees many potential complications, such as enforcement with a small staff, tense relations with contractors and builders, and the autonomy of homeowners. And in many cases, the tree law looks more like a tree tax, where builders pay into a general tree replacement fund. 

“I always try to ask, ‘What is the why?’ said Olsen. “If it’s saving trees, I don’t know if that’s the way to get it.” He said educating and incentivizing people is key. “People have to want it, it needs to start there. You need to tell them why there’s an incentive. Trees planted strategically can reduce [heating and cooling] costs. There’s aesthetic value of having trees on the property.” 

Olsen said the town is considering a tree program to maintain and grow public shade trees, but cost will be a factor in whether it is approved. 

Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley said she agrees with Olsen that the question of trees is  complicated, and she knows the town will need to really listen to all stakeholders during the upcoming Tree Summit. 

“I think we have a number of stakeholders from town boards that need to be involved,” said Cooley. “There needs to be a bunch of listening to hear from residents and to hear from developers about what their expectations might be. I don’t think anybody has an example of somebody that did it perfectly, and I think that’s part of the challenge.” 

Cooley also said she believes more education is needed around the value of trees for stormwater management, a concern that was front and center after the flooding on Aug. 8. “Every tree on a street that’s cut down is no longer sucking up hundreds of thousands of gallons.” 

Another potential conflict with a law that limits cutting down trees is with Needham’s effort to move toward solar powered energy. Keeping a tree canopy can limit a home’s ability to run on solar panels that require ample sun exposure. 

With nearly 100 teardown homes a year, many trees are being removed to make access easier. As builders continue to focus on profit margins, a law regulating how many and which trees can be removed could be detrimental for business. 

Jay Derenzo, a third generation builder who works in Needham and many surrounding communities, said he is not opposed to a tree ordinance, provided it is done thoughtfully and with input from residents, builders and any other stakeholders who have an opinion. 

“Newton and Wellesley have [tree ordinances],” said Derenzo. “The tree ordinance we would have wouldn’t be the same.” He said the trees in Newton are much older and closer to the berm, something that Needham doesn’t share. He doesn’t think Needham should just “cut and paste” from other towns. 

Credit: Needham Observer

Often, Derenzo said, the trees on a property are diseased and need to come down. Whenever he takes on a property, he assesses it individually and not with a “one size fits all” approach. In some cases, the majority if not all trees need to come down. 

“I’ll get some feedback from abutters in the rear of the property,” he said. “As long as you put something up, you shouldn’t just clear-cut and leave.” He also said while he is not opposed to a tree ordinance, he does not want it to get muddled in bureaucracy. In other towns, he said, the building department is responsible for enforcing the tree bylaw. “That’s the right way to do it. There shouldn’t be another board or committee to go in front of.” 

Select Board Vice Chair Kevin Keane said he recognizes the difficulty in crafting an ideal tree bylaw, and believes there might be an easier way to accomplish the same goal. 

“I love old trees. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and it’s awful to see them come down,” said Keane. “But what’s worse is that they’re never replaced with anything.” He said requiring builders to replace felled trees with new plantings as part of obtaining an occupancy permit might be one approach. 

Creating legislation around tree preservation is as complicated as it is multisided. Incentives and education are a way to start the conversation, but a plan that a majority of stakeholders can agree on seems distant if not unlikely. 

“Many people have been talking about this for many many years and still haven’t come up with a solution,” said Olsen. 

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