UMass neighbors object to removal of two big trees

  • One of the two mature silver maples at Sunset Avenue and Fearing Street in Amherst that are slated to come down as part of a townhouse development near the corner. FOR THE GAZETTE/CAITLIN MOTT

Staff Writer
Published: 3/24/2022 7:54:59 PM
Modified: 3/24/2022 7:54:08 PM

AMHERST — Residents who live in neighborhoods near the University of Massachusetts’ high-rise dormitories are objecting to the removal of two large silver maple trees that provide a buffer between their homes and the Southwest Area of campus.

The proposed removal of the trees, which measure 43 inches and 56 inches around at breast height, comes as a townhouse development is planned near the corner of Fearing Street and Sunset Avenue, replacing single-family homes at 164 and 174 Sunset Ave. The development would include new public sidewalks on its perimeter and upgraded and relocated sewer service.

“They are old, but they’re still healthy. They’re established, they’re majestic,” Jennifer Larsen of Fearing Street said of the trees at a recent Public Shade Tree Committee hearing, adding that the trees help define the residential neighborhood and provide a natural screening from the UMass dorms.

“Installing a new sidewalk will just invite more drunk pedestrian traffic on weekend nights, making noise and littering in our lovely residential neighborhood,” Larsen said. “We don’t need it.”

With the feedback from residents, the committee voted 4-2 to recommend that Tree Warden Alan Snow work with the developer, Barry Roberts of Amherst, to save the larger of the two trees, opposite the Amherst Creamery Office Building at 150 Fearing St. Committee members Henry Lappen, Ellen Keiter, Gordon Green and Julian Hynes voted in favor, while Bennett Hazlip and Shoshona King voted against, and Chairwoman Sara Lawler abstained from the vote.

But the fate of both trees will be decided by Town Manager Paul Bockelman after Paige Wilder of Fearing Street filed a written objection to their removal, writing, “I urge you not to grant permission to remove trees from the public way at 174 Sunset Ave.”

Snow said Wednesday that a second letter of objection, as well as oral objections, trigger the process by which the town manager makes the call. All information gathered from the hearing, and at an earlier site visit, as well as his analysis of the health of the trees, will be provided to Bockelman, he said.

Based on his examination of the trees, there are both cavities and damage to the upper crown. “They’re definitely at the end of their life expectancies,” Snow said.

The larger tree, he said, has much less crown than it should for its size. “It’s in a decline cycle, is my assessment,” Snow said.

Elected members of the Town Council are joining residents in expressing concern.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam told the committee that the larger tree has played a symbolic role in marking the beginning of the residential neighborhood, providing a demarcation from the campus.

“There are others who think that it will also be important for students who will see it and without even thinking, just subliminally, subconsciously, know this is a quiet residential street,” Pam said.

Pam said she is also concerned that the town just goes through a ritual of holding hearings, and then allows trees to be cut down, possibly as a way to save on the cost of removing trees at a later time.

Snow, though, said he works with developers and homeowners to ensure public shade trees are not lost. “More often than not a tree is saved before anybody knows it was proposed for removal,” Snow said.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said the existing trees tell students crossing the street that they are leaving the campus. “It really does help to define the neighborhood and helps separate it from the university,” Taub said.

Thomas Reidy, an attorney with Bacon Wilson PC of Amherst, said it is unclear how wise it would be to preserve the trees given their age, but that Roberts is not withdrawing the application. “We’re going to have to wait for the town manager’s ultimate decision,” Reidy said.

If the plan goes forward, the trees will be replaced with 1- to 2-inch caliper red maples. Reidy said these could instead be 3- to 5-inch caliper red maples that are 25 feet tall at planting.

Wilder said the housing project should be re-envisioned, and that saving the larger of the maples outweighs any benefits to the town. “I think the tree should be allowed to live,” she said.

Others who spoke also expressed concern about a loss to the tree canopy which, along Sunset, is predominantly mature pin oaks.

Barbara Pearson of Paige Street said sidewalks will not serve residents, and that removing trees is not wise. “I don’t see how we could vote in favor of getting rid of it,” Pearson said.

Martha Jamison of Fearing Street said she would like to see both trees saved. “I don’t see any reason why we should accept a plan that assumes public shade trees should be removed,” Jamison said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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