Annoyance grows in Canton as city's tree-planting plans remain unfulfilled

Roots of frustration

November 03, 2006|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

All Susan Colligan wants to know is what exactly it's going to take to get her street trees.

Obviously something more than filling out the application.

Obviously something more than winning the support of her block, her community association and her City Council representative.

The dozens of e-mails she's sent to everyone from Baltimore's arborist to Mayor Martin O'Malley - obviously those aren't working either.

In a city that's been boasting about doubling the size of its tree canopy over the next 30 years, Colligan thought getting a few maples or elms for the 900 block of S. Baylis St. would be no problem.

But after months of mixed messages from city officials, her street remains bare.

"We know there's a green canopy goal. We know about `Believe.' Why should it be so hard to get these trees planted?" she asks. "It's an election year. We expected more than lip service and obstacles."

Despite Baltimore's big tree aspirations, homeowners who want trees on their streets are being told that they have to pay for the most expensive part of the installation - cutting the sidewalk.

This is happening even though, in some cases, the city's Transportation Department is apparently willing to do the work for free.

"It is ab-so-lute-ly ridiculous," says City Councilman James B. Kraft, enunciating each syllable with annoyance because his office has spent weeks trying to help Colligan and her Canton neighbors. "There is no logic to this at all. None.

"We have this entire commitment for this quote-unquote tree canopy thing, which was announced with great fanfare, and yet we're being thwarted by our own people."

To get a tree planted, city residents must formally apply to the Department of Recreation and Parks. If Forestry Division officials deem the site tree-worthy, residents must arrange for utility companies to check the area for conflicts and for someone to cut a hole in the sidewalk and remove the concrete.

If residents have to hire someone to cut the sidewalk, it can cost as much as $200 per tree hole.

Butchers Hill paid about $1,000 to have eight tree holes cut last spring, said Remington Nevin, a neighborhood homeowner who made the arrangements.

"It is a lot - it certainly is a lot," Nevin says. "If the city was going to pay for it, they'd more than get that back in taxes and whatnot."

Because the neighborhood was so pleased with the initial saplings, residents decided to join with Fells Prospect to plant an additional 50 - hoping this time that the city would cut the sidewalks.

Nevin is still waiting for a response to that application - made months ago.

Baltimore is not the only city that requires homeowners to pay for sidewalk cuttings, though many, including Washington, do not. However, it might be the only city to do so that just won a major award for its ambitious tree-planting goals.

Last month, the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture chose Baltimore for its Gold Leaf Award, an honor that comes with bragging rights and a wooden plaque.

The group, with about 1,200 mainly arborist members in Maryland, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia, said Baltimore's stunning pledge to double its tree canopy made it a shoo-in for the prize - particularly since there were only six nominations.

Paul Revell, an urban forestry coordinator for Virginia's Department of Forestry who decided the winner, called Baltimore's effort a "quantum leap" over what anyone else is doing.

But Mike Galvin, an arborist with Maryland's Department of Natural Resources who nominated Baltimore for the award, said the city's goal is just that - a hope rather than a plan. That said, Galvin has every hope the city will make it happen.

"It may seem like just talk, but we want to see the trees get in," Galvin said. "We didn't intend this as a paper exercise."

An urban tree canopy isn't merely a beautification tool. Trees can help prevent flooding, filter air and water pollution, and ease what's known as the "urban heat island effect," which can make city centers much warmer than outlying suburbs.

Kraft, considering the luck he's had trying to get one neighborhood 10 trees, doesn't see much future for the city's lofty goal. "You may as well close down the tree canopy program right now," he says wryly.

Billy Hwang, a Kraft aide, talked with officials in the Transportation Department, who said they'd gladly make the sidewalk cuts - as long as the Forestry Division asked for them.

Hwang e-mailed Rebecca Feldberg, the city's arborist, who wrote back nine days later: "I am afraid I cannot ask Transportation to cut any more pits."

Hwang feels as though he's witnessing some sort of municipal Catch-22.

"Where does this all come from?" he sighed. "For God sake, just do it."

Feldberg and officials from Recreation and Parks did not return phone calls Wednesday or yesterday. However, a Transportation Department spokeswoman confirmed that her agency is willing to make as many cuts as Forestry needs.

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