How big is the problem? Has it been measured?
The adequacy of a tree canopy is difficult to measure. The Town will soon finalize and make public both an inventory of all street trees and a tree canopy survey that will shed some light on this question, but an across-town average may not reflect conditions in your neighborhood or on your street. We do know that Lexington averages about 75 teardowns and several new subdivisions each year, and that many builders clearcut these lots before building new homes; if you live near one of these lots, your experience will be particularly acute. Beyond that, many of our trees, both street trees and those on private land, would benefit from pruning care to extend their lives and minimize rot and disease.
But beyond the losses, we also know that climate change is bringing higher summer temperatures to Lexington, and a robust tree canopy is one of the best things we can do locally to prepare. We need to strengthen our canopy, not just stop the attrition. Trees lower ambient temperatures and shade people and buildings. A drive through most neighborhoods will reveal many places where the town and individual property owners, if interested, could plant more.
Doesn’t Lexington’s Tree Bylaw prevent clear-cutting?
The bylaw only applies to trees in the "setback” – the area within 30 feet of the property line on the front of the property and within 15 feet on the sides and back – and only during major construction. Those trees may be removed, but their removal must be mitigated by replanting or by paying into a fund that the Town uses to plant trees. Trees in the interior of the lot may be removed without any mitigation required.
The bylaw applies retroactively to trees cut in the year preceding a demolition permit application. Some developers try to get around the regulations, such as by cutting trees and then waiting a year to begin demolition and construction.
Is it just construction that’s the problem?
Construction may be the largest contributor to tree loss, as Lexington averages about 75 teardowns a year. We also see healthy large trees being removed by homeowners who don’t have any construction underway. And climate change, with its higher summer temperatures and more erratic rainfall and storm patterns, affects tree health. This is especially true for young trees that are not yet established.
We can't save every tree, nor do we need to. But we need a discussion about the importance of trees in our community and what we can do collectively to improve their contribution to our quality of life in the years ahead.
What is the condition of Lexington’s public shade trees?
Many of our more than 25,000 public shade trees (those lining our streets, in parks, and around schools and town buildings) need pruning, either to remove damaged limbs or to shape the tree for future healthy growth. Our DPW does what it can but lacks the resources to do more.
How many trees does the Town plant each year, and how are they faring?
The DPW aims to plant 140 trees each year – usually 70 in the spring and 70 in the fall – but falls short of that goal in some years. The contractor who plants them guarantees their survival for one year. In very dry years, watering hundreds of young trees each summer requires more resources than the DPW has. This summer’s drought was particularly hard on the trees that were planted in the last few years and a number of them died.
How many public trees does the Town remove each year, and why?
The DPW removes on average about 50 public trees each year due to their condition. This number does not include trees removed for the purpose of town construction projects such as sidewalks or buildings, which is not reported.
Is preserving mature trees a consideration in Town construction projects?
Consideration of the trees on a site is not currently part of any formal approval step for Town projects, except for compliance with Conservation Commission regulations and the state public shade tree law called Chapter 87. Some departments are better than others at consulting the Tree Committee early in project planning to explore alternatives to removing mature trees. We'd like to see this become a regular practice across all departments.
Doesn’t this campaign conflict with adding housing and solar energy systems?
Absolutely not. There is plenty of room in Lexington for all three, and we desperately need all three. We are not asking that no tree ever be cut down. We ARE asking that the public value of trees be properly considered in all decision-making, including their ability to ameliorate the growing impacts of climate change. Trees do an enormous amount of good for all of us, individually and as a community, and their contributions should be valued, and alternatives and compromises explored, before trees are removed.
What about removing trees to install solar panels on my roof?
Solar energy systems are an important tool in combating climate change. Green infrastructure – i.e., trees – can also help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by keeping our yards and homes cooler in summer and blocking winter winds. Trees also sequester carbon. One approach is to work around your trees, perhaps with modest pruning, to install solar panels. Installing solar at your own cost gives you more flexibility than leasing panels, as the company leasing those panels to you needs to maximize the electricity output and may require that you remove trees.
What can we do to address the concerns you raise?
There's a great deal. Other cities and towns around the country can help point the way. From public education to financial incentives for homeowners, to neighborhood tree planting campaigns, to stronger regulations and enforcement, there are many good ideas and programs from which we can learn. We're asking our existing committees and organizations -- both on the town side (Select Board, Tree Committee, DPW, Conservation, Planning, Town Meeting, and others) and the community side (nonprofits, PTAs, neighborhood associations, and others) -- to help and to take action.
You too can help by maintaining the health of the trees on your property, planting more if you are able to, and watering nearby public street trees during times of drought. Check out Lexington’s setback and street tree planting program if you would like the town to plant a tree at the front of your property.