Thirty-six felled trees at the corner of Maple Street and Summit Street are causing dismay among nearby residents.
After Priscilla Douglas, a Spruce Street resident, passed by the stump-riddled property last week, she posted a short note on the South Union Front Porch Forum, titled “A Tree Lament and Rant.” Since then, a debate over what some have dubbed "de-forestation" has unfolded.
The property in question — 61 Summit Street — is owned by the University of Vermont. The erstwhile trees surrounded a striking Queen Anne Style house. Built in 1892 as a family home, it became a fraternity house until UVM purchased the property, in 2007, with plans to make the building its Alumni House.
UVM planning relations manager Lisa Kingsbury explained in an email to Douglas — who shared it on Front Porch Forum — that the university plans to construct another building and add a small parking area, which required cutting some of the trees. Others were diseased or invasive species— as was the case with the Norway Maples. Although the property currently looks barren, Kingsbury told Seven Days that UVM plans to plant 44 new trees — species such as blue spruce, river birch, and Cornelian cherry dogwood. She also noted that the university has worked closely with neighbors throughout the planning to make sure the construction didn't create problems for them.
Not all residents are satisfied with Kingsbury's explanation, and several have expressed dismay that UVM, which prides itself on a strong environmental focus, would choose to remove a number of striking trees. In a FPF post riffing off the famous Dr. Seuss book, Susanne Schmidt wrote,
I'm sure that the bushes and pavement and tar, will look just so splendid for alumni near and from far.
Just think of the money that they will all give, as they stand in the place where the trees used to live.
The thing you forgot is that some alumni like trees,
and believe in their protection and aging with ease.
I hope this response will calm all your fears...,
this alumni won't be contributing this year.
People are also questioning how officials allowed this to happen. Did UVM need the city's permission? Did it consult Burlington's arborist? Why weren't neighbors given a chance to weigh in?
Senior city planner Mary O'Neil has been fielding queries like these for several days from city councilors and others. In the planning and zoning department in the basement of city hall, O'Neil unfurled the landscaping plans that UVM submitted and explained that, yes, UVM needed permission — and it got it.
The university submitted a construction proposal to the city in January, which included landscaping changes.
As former city councilor Norm Blais pointed out on Front Porch Forum, anyone proposing to remove six or more trees that are at least 10 inches in diameter, or 10 or more trees that are at least three inches in diameter, needs permission from the Burlington Development Review Board.
City staff and the development review board asked UVM to revise its landscaping plans twice — first to give greater detail about which trees would be removed and what would be planted in their stead, and a second time to request taller trees on one section of the property. After UVM submitted a third plan in June, the DRB approved their application. The DRB didn't actually meet to review the third plan, O'Neil said, but its members were aware that UVM had complied with their request. Residents have suggested the DRB shirked its duty by neglecting to look at the final plan, but according to O'Neil, the approach the DRB followed is not uncommon. She emphasized that the project, including the proposed tree removals, underwent a thorough review.
When someone submits an application to the DRB, the city notifies abutting property owners and holds a public hearing for anyone who wants to weigh in. With UVM projects, the city isn't required to send out those notifications, according to O'Neil, but, in this case, it did anyway. She pulled out a list of addresses that, she said, had received a letter. Those notices, however, wouldn't have detailed UVM's landscaping plans.
The city's arborist only has say over trees planted in the public right-of-way, O'Neil added.
Burlington is no stranger to arbor ardor. Last fall, a local woman chained herself to a large cottonwood in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the parks department from removing it. Some posters to the South Union Front Porch Forum have suggested that the tree-hugging disposition of their neighbors is over-the-top. But plenty others still see it as a sign that city leaders are failing to live up to the city's green reputation.
Douglas, who said she recognized that sometimes trees must be removed, sent Seven Days a statement to explain why she was so upset by the Summit Street stumps. "Trees are the heart and soul of Burlington. Many of them have been here for generations so are part of Burlington's history as well. I wished I had had a chance to express my feelings about the trees and to understand why they were cut down."