Opinion: Owners and developers must play by the rules

Aug 26, 2022

To the editor:

As reported in Dartmouth Week, the Dartmouth Board of Public Works (BPW) held a public hearing on Aug. 24 to discuss the after-the-fact felling of 12 mature Black Locust trees (diameter 18 inches) on town-owned property facing Wilson Street. This so-called landscaping work was initiated by the owners of 454 Elm Street whose corner lot also abuts Gould and Wilson Streets. 

The Board of Public Works voted to impose a maximum fine of $6,000 in compliance with Massachusetts General Laws (MGL), Chapter 87, section 3 (Public Shade Trees) and town counsel’s recommendation, which comes out to $500 per tree. 

(The hearing was recorded for DCTV’s YouTube channel.) 

The removal of these important heritage trees to give the owners a better view of the harbor resulted in depriving neighbors and residents of an inherently valuable streetscape of important shade trees. The fallout from the loss of these trees will create untold ecological damage which will exacerbate the water drainage problems from Elm Street to Wilson, and down to the perpendicular streets, e.g., Gladys Street, and gravitating to the inner harbor which could potentially add more toxins to the Apponagansett River. An environmental calamity if not mitigated!

Private property owners are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their property and are permitted certain freedoms of development and property improvements, but the owners and developers must play by the rules. A defense raised by the owners’ attorney was an ignorance of the applicable laws, claiming unfamiliarity with MGL, Chapter 87, Section 3 (Public Shade Trees) but no malicious intent. There is also the matter of personal responsibility and accountability. 

The town’s natural and cultural assets as well as the infrastructure outside of private property boundaries belong to all of us. 

As with every other municipality, Dartmouth has its set of bylaws and regulations subject to all. The town is also expected to comply with the MGL. Such laws are easy to find online on the town and state websites. 

It seems to me that in combination of the owners, contractors, landscapers, and an attorney, claiming ignorance of the Public Shade Trees law is no excuse and a weak argument. No one works in a vacuum especially on a project as extensive as this one with such ramifications to a tree-lined neighborhood. 

The strategy applied here was “Don’t Ask for Permission, Ask for Forgiveness.” No matter the motivations, this action had consequences, intended or not, that cannot be reversed. 

For this case, the BPW was limited to levying a fine of an inadequate $6,000. What will this money be used for? 

Many in attendance asked that 12 trees be planted, like for like, in the same location.  This requires a reconfiguration of the building and site plans and changing the proposed new entrance from Wilson Street back to Elm Street. It is my understanding that the permitting is ongoing so perhaps those adjustments and mitigations can be addressed in that process.

Going forward, this town needs a Tree Warden (DPW) that can be vigilant in surveying the 62-plus square miles of land area and reviews development plans (residential and commercial) in concert with the Planning Board, Building Department, the Conservation Commission, et al. Owners/Developers present plans to these individual departments. This collaboration would go a long way in avoiding the degradation of the town’s historic character, natural and cultural resources which we see all too often.

To some developers, a $6,000 fine is the cost of doing business. The town needs to develop a Tree Preservation Bylaw that will have more teeth than MGL which other communities have. Can this be done in Dartmouth?

Diane Gilbert,