In this era of massive budget shortfalls, every municipality from the largest to the smallest is looking to save money. The city of Cranston, Rhode Island’s, solution was to have their Department of Public Works trim the 28-year-old Gleditsia (honey locust). So much for good ideas.
There were approximately 40-45 Gleditsia that were installed in 1982-1983 as part of a renovation of the Rolfe Square business district. I am very familiar with Rolfe Square as I lived in Cranston for many years. One day, as I was visiting my post office box, another patron of the post office, who knew I was an arborist, approached me to inquire if I had seen the trimming the Cranston DPW was doing to the trees on Rolfe Square. I said I had not noticed, but upon exiting the front door of the post office, I was rather amazed at what I saw. Many of the locust trees had been completely stripped out with up to 75 per- cent of the foliage removed. The cuts were a mix of slab cuts, stubs and ripped bark.
Later that day, I received a phone call from Cranston Councilman Emilio Navarro, who had been receiving calls from concerned residents about the appearance of their city’s business district. He requested that I meet him on site. We met the next day Friday, September 10, 2010.
He wanted to know if the trimming that was done was proper or improper. I told him that, in my opinion, these trees had been severely damaged. At that point, the Councilman approached the Department of Public Works to ask two questions: What was the purpose of the trim, and why was it being done in such a manner?
The administration responded in an e- mail statement issued by Robin Schutt, the administration spokesperson:
"To clarify, tree trimming is something that our Highway Department does routinely. The trees on Rolfe Street required trimming, as in many cases the branches were too low – and did not meet public safety standards, or were rubbing against buildings and roofs. Any damage from those is on the shoulders of the City. I realize, as does the Public Works department, that the long term life of a FEW of these trees might be compromised – but the reality is that these were not appropriate trees in the first place – and eventually will need replacing – trimmed or otherwise (and our decision was to save the trees for as long as possible).”
The e-mail also claimed that the city saved $20,000 by doing the trimming in house. The city was pushing back pretty hard to justify their actions, and the fact that this was an election year hardened everyone’s positions. I am not a political person and, in my 40 years of practice, I have never met a tree that was either Republican or Democrat. My involvement was to act on behalf of the most innocent of the victims; the trees themselves.
There was a City Council meeting scheduled for Monday, September 27. Councilman Navarro arranged for me to be given 30 minutes to present on the long- term ramifications of the poor pruning. The research I had to do for the presentation offered a wider perspective.
The Rolfe Square improvement was authorized in 1982. A news release issued in that year stated, "the purpose of the project was to make the area more attractive, thus attracting more shoppers.” The release goes on to say, "The Rolfe Street area, in the heart of our city, offers just such a promise for the future.”
The goal of my slide presentation on the evening of September 27 was to address what I believed to be inaccurate statements about the goals to be achieved, the methods used, and the long-term results. To begin with, I could find no city trim specifications, and nothing in the final product resembled anything in accordance to the ANSI A300 standards. I mentioned to the Council that this was not trimming, it was branch cutting, because trimming or pruning takes into consideration the health of the tree; the actions that I saw did not.
The spokesperson for the DPW referenced the American’s with Disabilities Act,
The administration attempted to justify the cutting by saying that the Gleditsia were not appropriate street trees in the first place. I presented the book entitled Street Tree Factsheets by Gerhold, Wandell and Lacasse, it lists the Gleditsia triacanthos as a perfectly acceptable street tree. This book is a publication of the Municipal Tree Restoration Program, with support of the USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, in cooperation of forestry agencies of, among others, Rhode Island.
I pointed out to the council that proper trimming is beneficial and their goals were valid, but the execution of the work was damage by any horticultural standard. The cuts themselves were either leaving stubs or making flush cuts. The solution that I presented to the city council was becoming familiar with and adhering to ANSI standards. The most damaging part of the indiscriminate branch cutting was the amount of foliage that was removed. Some of the trees had 75 percent of the foliage removed after one of the hottest and driest summers on record. ANSI A300 Part 1 - 6.1.4 specifies: not more than 25 percent of the foliage should be removed within an annual growing season. After a season of minimal photosynthesis, these trees have been given a lot more work to do in their weakened state. What I see for these trees in the next few years is excessive suckering, sunscald and progressive decline. The energy that they need to fend off insects and disease will instead be used for healing unnecessary wounds.
In 1982, the city hired a landscape architect to design an esthetically pleasing business area. The cost of the project at the time was $175,000. The design intent of the project was a continuous allée with tree canopy on both sides of the street culminating with a park at a major intersection.
What the branch cutting accomplished was a loss of continuity of design – the trees are irregular and no longer match either their total setting or each other. The contribution of the individual trees has been seriously compromised in terms of providing shade, temperature mitigation, natural form, etc.
The city has said that it has saved the taxpayers about $20,000 by doing this in- house. This figure was never justified by any formal bid. If this job had ANSI specifications as guidelines, I would have figured it at approximately $14,000. The Gleditsia that make up this grove vary in DBH from 7 inches to 16 inches.
As an exercise, I did an evaluation on a 12-inch DBH tree using the Trunk Formula Method from the 9th edition of The Guide for Plant Appraisal. I have valued one 12-inch tree at $7,100. There have so far been 15 trees damaged. I estimate each tree to be devalued by 66 percent: 15 x $7,100 = $106,500. $106,500 x .66 = a net loss of $70,290.
When you view the damage to the whole project, the figures run much higher. What cost $175,000 in 1982 could easily cost $350,000 to $525,000 in 2010. If these are the methods that are to be used, I don’t know how much more money that the City of Cranston can afford to save.
Where this situation stands now, is that the city intends to continue the cutting, regardless of the additional damage. One bright note is that Councilman Navarro, with the support of some of the other Council members, is attempting to include the ANSI A300 standards as part of any tree trimming in the City of Cranston, no matter who does the trimming. One major logistical problem would be quality control if the Department of Public Works continues doing the work, in terms of training and
As professional arborists, our primary goal is to care for trees on their journey through time so that they can be passed on for the enjoyment of the next generation. We are the "Guardians of Tomorrow.” Poor tree care has the greatest impact on a tree, and trees have very long memories. One of the principal precepts of medical ethics is "do no harm.” The ethical practitioner of arboriculture needs to apply this guideline as well.
David L. Schwartz is the owner of Schwartz Tree Care in Coventry, Rhode Island