Goodbye Sidewalk Trees
Facing expensive upkeep costs when towering trees cause sidewalk hazards, some suburban towns opt to uproot them entirely. CreditTrisha Krauss
By Ronda Kaysen
Like many New Yorkers who left the city for the suburbs, I was drawn to my block, an otherwise forgettable street, for its soaring sidewalk trees — pin oaks, lindens and ash — that shade it in the summer and stand like barren giants in the winter.
So I was stunned to step outside a few weeks ago on a bitter winter afternoon and see a line of white X’s spray-painted across their trunks. The next day, my next-door neighbor, Stacey Millett, whose home shares the corner with a ginkgo whose leaves turn golden in the fall, called the town forester and learned that all the trees would be cut down as part of a repaving project.
“ALL of them,” Ms. Millett, 41, who has lived on this block of West Orange, N.J., with her family since 2010, texted me. “He wasn’t kidding.”
Look out an apartment window in the city and the trees certainly add color, texture and life to the streetscape. But the view is often dominated by the architecture of the skyline and the street life below. In the suburbs, trees play an outsize role, offering not just shade and beauty, but sometimes the richest character on a block, particularly one like mine with mostly smaller, unmemorable homes.
They also improve the environment — and property values. A 2009 study in Portland, Ore., found that the presence of street trees boosted the sale price of a home by close to $9,000 and reduced its time on the market by 1.7 days.
The years, however, have not been kind to our leafy friends. Over the last decade, the Northeast has lost millions of trees to storms, drought and disease, reshaping and reducing the canopy. In one storm alone in March 2018, West Orange lost 116 of its roughly 10,000 trees, according to John Linson, the town’s forester.This is your last free article.Subscribe to The Times
In the six years that I’ve lived here, I can count a dozen that have died on the square block that circles my property. A curve carved in the sidewalk in front of my house is all that remains of a tree that stood in front of my home until it died some years ago. Just a few days ago, high winds knocked a tree onto a power line a few blocks from my house.
Despite these losses, I had not expected to lose so many at once. And yet, West Orange is grappling with a problem faced by communities around the country. Street trees planted decades — and in some cases, a century — ago were not ideal species for a paved environment and are nowlarge, mature and in need of maintenance. With little soil available beneath the sidewalk, roots interfere with drainage systems, and buckle concrete. Utility companies aggressively prune tree limbs away from power lines, leaving awkward, and potentially unstable, V-shaped trees.
“We’ve created a system that is not healthy for trees,” said Mike Brick, the chairman of the West Orange Environmental Commission, who suggested that homeowners plant trees in their yards instead, where the roots have more space to grow. “It is a compromised system, at best, and no one paid attention to it.”
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And so, the iconic Norman Rockwell-style streetscape is fading away. As West Orange replaces sidewalks and curbs, it oftenremoves old town-owned trees and plants new species that are more compatible for the location,if homeowners request them. “Over the next 20 or 30 years, there won’t be any tall trees where there are overhead wires,” Mr. Linson said.
Conservationists espouse maintenance methods that could protect more trees, like permeable sidewalks and more careful pruning. While these efforts are often costly for cash-strapped towns, they could preserve a resource that cleans particulate matter from the air, absorbs runoff and reduces the heat index. “The benefits to society far outweigh the costs” of higher maintenance, said Robert McDonald, the lead scientist for the Global Cities program at the Nature Conservancy.
West Orange does make some accommodations. Some trees, like those far from utility wires or set back from the curb, where their roots are not compromised, may stay. For smaller repaving projects, the trees may not be affected at all. If a property owner asks for the tree in front of his or her house to be spared, the town will try to save it by leaving the existing curbing or using an alternative curb material like a steel plate, which is less attractive than the typical Belgian block, but does not require the deep footings that cut into root systems. The town may also cut the sidewalk out around the trunk or build an incline over the roots, or simply leave that portion of the sidewalk unrepaired. But if the tree stays, the homeowner would be responsible for the cost of any future sidewalk repairs.
Repairing a sidewalk is not cheap, costing a homeowner an average of $1,318, according to HomeAdvisor. Delaying work could mean tickets from the town, or a lawsuit, if someone trips and falls.
In 2016, West Orange residents Miriam and Mark Reimer were warned by their homeowner insurance company to repair their damaged sidewalk or face a rate hike or a loss of coverage. Soon after, West Orange sent them a separate letter, saying that as part of a sidewalk replacement project, the town planned to remove the tree in front of their house, along with most of the others on the block of large, stately trees. The town would pay to replace the sidewalk. The Reimers didn’t contest the plan (nor did their neighbors), and requested that a new tree be planted.
“If we hadn’t gotten that letter, maybe we would have chosen to keep some of those trees” on the block, said Ms. Reimer, 38, a freelance editor, who described the new look of her street as “barren.”
West Orange removes roughly 300 trees a year, and plants about 100 new ones. “It’s a deficit,” Mr. Linson said. “It’s mainly because people don’t want a tree” in front of their property, and the town will not plant a tree a homeowner does not want. Some homeowners see the trees as a nuisance, with leaves that need to be raked, roots that may eventually upend sidewalks, and branches that could come crashing down in a storm.