City puts more green into caring for its trees

May 30, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

After years of enduring the hard knocks of city life - from encroaching development to approaching dogs - a lone city tree in Northeast Baltimore struck back against humanity one windy night in January and wrecked a car.

The otherwise benign maple made its move about 9 p.m., as Henry Thomas Jr. relaxed in front of the TV with his wife. Thomas heard a crash outside, peered through the window and saw a huge branch in the driveway next to his month-old Chrysler C300.

"We heard this boom and I was like, `Whoa,'" said Thomas, who is 57 and lives in Woodbourne Heights. "It broke over the car, dented the roof. They had to replace the whole back window."

City trees - experts estimate that there are 500,000 in Baltimore - have a tough life, and some are clearly the worse for wear. The city received about 7,800 forestry service requests in fiscal year 2005, including many for downed trees, pruning, stump removal and new plantings.

Last year, 53 Baltimoreans filed claims with City Hall to recoup tree-related damage, mostly for branches falling on cars and roofs. In 2004, the city shelled out more than $200,000 to tree victims.

Like many neighborhood services, the three in-house and nine contract crews that care for Baltimore's trees have worked reactively, responding to calls made to the 311 hot line. But City Hall is now stepping up the effort at preventive maintenance and the administration is making a financial commitment to repair and prune limbs before they snap.

This year, the city budget included an additional $1 million for trees, and that money is expected to continue. The city's new arborist, Rebecca Feldberg, is proposing an aggressive schedule of pruning that would set eyes, and clippers, to 20 percent of the city's street trees every seven years - a timetable that would put Baltimore ahead of other cities.

Added care is particularly important for street trees, which must gather water through roots growing under pavement. Foot traffic, urine, bicycle locks, vandalism, air pollution and even underground utility conduits can endanger a tree.

"A mature tree will get dead wood as it gets older, especially city trees, because there's so much impact from development," Feldberg said. "If you prune a tree when it's younger, you can determine the form of the tree so that later on you have less pruning to do."

Cities across the nation are working to grow and improve tree populations - and not just for aesthetics. Federal studies have shown that trees reduce low-level ozone, or smog, by filtering tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the air. Leafy canopies and the exposed earth where trees are planted mitigate runoff that overloads storm drains after heavy rain.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa made planting a million new trees a central theme of his mayoralty, and the city has redirected storm-water funds toward promoting green developments. Indianapolis proposed planting 100,000 trees this year, focusing on areas with relatively sparse tree density.

"We are beginning to see more interest in taking an ecology-based approach to city trees, rather than just treating them like a piece of infrastructure, like a sidewalk or a street lamp," said Alice Ewen Walker, executive director of the Alliance for Community Trees, a Beltsville-based advocacy group.

Part of the movement, Walker said, requires patience from residents - to remember that trees, like all living things, are fallible and, in storms, fellable.

Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks received $3.8 million in the fiscal year that ends in June for street planting, maintenance and trimming, and that amount is expected to grow slightly next year. In a budget presentation to the City Council this month, the added money was justified, in part, as a way to reduce claims.

While most claims are for property damage - often caused by falling branches or roots pushing into basements - some are far more serious. One resident contended that she was involved in an accident last year because a tree obscured her view of a stop sign.

For Thomas, whose damage totaled $1,600, filing a claim was a frustrating and ultimately fruitless process. After returning a form and including pictures of the damage, the branch and the leaves still in the back seat, he got a response from the city's legal department. Before a local government pays out, the letter read, claimants must show that the city knew about and ignored the tree's defect.

In other words, Thomas was out of luck. A few days after he got the letter, a city crew came down his street to prune the trees, he said.

People living near city trees might be without recourse if limbs fall, but urban forestry experts say they are not without ways to help keep trees healthy in the first place. Residents can use a cultivator to gently open the soil around a tree and promote irrigation, said Susan Gooberman, executive director of Trees New York.

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