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Brookline’s first tree preservation bylaw takes root, with new regulations aiming to protect urban canopy

A worker cuts a tree branch with a chainsaw in Brookline in October 2023. Photo by Artemisia Luk
April 23, 2024  Updated May 3, 2024 at 3:44 p.m.

Nearly 20 years in the making, Brookline’s first Tree Preservation Bylaw officially became law at the end of November. Despite that long, sometimes controversial path to enactment, the bylaw’s first few months on the books have been relatively uneventful.

Based on a similar tree bylaw adopted in Concord, Mass., the Brookline bylaw is designed to preserve the town’s canopy of trees – and help mitigate the effects of climate change — largely by imposing fees and an approval process before owners can cut down trees on their property. Passed by Town Meeting in the fall of 2022, the bylaw officially became effective on Nov. 29, 2023.

“The purpose of the bylaw is to preserve Brookline’s urban tree canopy as much as possible,” said Joslin Murphy, co-petitioner of the bylaw and a member of the town’s Advisory Committee. Before the bylaw’s passage, protections in town had concerned only publicly-owned trees.

The bylaw prohibits the removal of “protected trees,” which are defined as existing trees that have a diameter of six inches or greater at “breast height” (four-and-a-half feet) and that fall within 20 feet of any property line.

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An individual within any residential district of Brookline must obtain a Protected Tree Impact and Removal Permit to remove a protected tree. This rule applies to trees that are removed during construction activities and during the 12 months before a property owner applies for a demolition or building permit for the demolition of a structure at least 250 square feet, building on an empty lot, or expanding an existing structure by at least 50 percent in gross floor area.

Developers or residents who choose to remove these protected trees must compensate for tree loss by replanting trees or by making a payment to the town.

The bylaw is designed to limit clear cutting properties by charging a $500 fee per inch of tree diameter removed or requiring replacement. For example, a standard 100-year-old maple tree has a tree diameter of around 15 inches. Therefore, the removal of this tree would cost $7,500.

“When these funds come in, they go into a specific account we use for the implementation of the bylaw,” said Tom Brady, the town’s tree warden, arborist, and conservation administrator. He said the funds could be used to pay a contractor for the permitting processes required in the bylaw, or to plant trees in a neighborhood to compensate for what was lost on a specific lot.

“There is some built-in flexibility there to ensure that the best benefit is there for the community,” said Brady.

Trees line a Brookline street. Photo by Artemisia Luk

Preparing for climate change

The bylaw is one of the key recommendations from the Brookline Urban Forest Climate Resiliency Master Plan of June 2021. That plan made data-driven suggestions about how the community can prepare itself for the impacts of climate change.

“We know that our climate is causing temperatures to get warmer. With that, in summertime, we’re getting extreme heat events,” said Pamela Templer, professor and chair of Boston University’s Biology Department and a member of Brookline’s Tree Planting Committee.

Extreme heat events, she said, could lead to significant health problems, even hospitalizations, and in extreme cases, death. “The tree canopy is really important because trees themselves can help us both mitigate and adapt to climate change.”

Tree canopy coverage refers to the layer formed by branches, leaves, and stems that provide shade and coverage of the ground when observed from above. LiDAR technology was used to image Brookline and calculate canopy loss, finding that 44.7% of Brookline’s total acreage is shaded by trees,  and the town has a goal to increase that number to 49.1% over the coming decade.

In recent years, however, those numbers have been going in the opposite direction. Brookline lost 71 acres of tree canopy coverage between 2014 and 2020, decreasing the coverage from 46.3 percent in 2014 to 44.7 percent in 2020. This amounts to roughly 1.6% of Brookline’s total acreage or around eight Fenway Parks-worth of trees removed. Most of that loss occurred on residential properties in South Brookline, according to the 2021 resiliency plan.

A cross-town divide 

Data from the 2021 Master Plan highlighted large disparities in tree canopy coverage between North and South Brookline.

North Brookline’s deficiency in tree canopy is largely attributable to the greater amount of developed land there. Compared to the town-wide tree canopy coverage of 44.7%, North Brookline had only 35 percent canopy coverage in 2020. This means North Brookline experiences higher heat retention and urban heat islands, which pose more risks to residents’ health as temperatures rise.

Sean Lynn-Jones, a resident of North Brookline and the president of Brookline GreenSpace Alliance, acknowledged this imbalance. “We need to do more to expand the urban forest — and to make sure we have trees in the parts of particularly North Brookline, where trees are scarce,” he said. “Specifically [in places] where there are urban heat islands, issues with stormwater, erosion, and a lower quality of life because trees just make almost everything better.”

However, there is no language within the bylaw distinguishing between areas of Brookline. Murphy said that was deliberate.

“I cross pollinated from Concord’s [tree protection] bylaw. And I also knew the Attorney General had approved it,” said Murphy. “So a concern that came up is that once you start distinguishing between zoning districts, it raises a question about lawfulness.” The proposal’s backers opted not to distinguish between North and South, for fear of introducing uncertainty.

‘Moving in the right direction’

In a recent interview, Brookline Police Department spokesperson Paul Campbell said that BPD had received just one anonymous report requesting enforcement of the bylaw. Officers responding to the call found no violation of its rules and reported that the issue was quickly resolved.

Brookline.News contacted nine local tree service providers in the area, but they either failed to return messages or chose not to give their reaction to the new bylaw.

Just because reaction to the bylaw has been muted in its first few months on the books doesn’t mean that will continue.

“It’s a complex bylaw and it’s going to take some time to implement and there are situations that I’m sure won’t be covered as we go through it,” said Hugh Mattison, a member of Brookline’s Tree Planting Committee and on the Board of Directors of Brookline GreenSpace Alliance. “We have to experience it. We have to work with what we have and see how it goes before we propose other changes. It’ll be a year or two before we do more.”

Lynn-Jones expressed optimism about the precedent established by this bylaw in Brookline.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction. And I think the tree bylaw is a very important step,” he said. “The next step will be educating people about how it [the bylaw] works, what it does and what it doesn’t do. Then we’ll figure out if it’s working in practice the way it was supposed to work in theory.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Reinventing Journalism course at Brandeis University, taught by Professor Neil Swidey, with mentoring for student journalists by Brookline.News steering committee co-chair Ellen Clegg and editor Sam Mintz. Read more about the collaboration here.