Q & A: Steve Allgeier, chairman of Westminster Tree Commission, discusses city's inaugural tree plan

Steve Allgeier, chairman of the Westminster Tree Commission, talks to the Mayor and Common Council Monday, Dec. 10, about the city's inaugural Comprehensive Tree Plan. A licensed arborist, Allgeier's passion for trees reflects in his conversation with the Times about the report.
Steve Allgeier, chairman of the Westminster Tree Commission, talks to the Mayor and Common Council Monday, Dec. 10, about the city's inaugural Comprehensive Tree Plan. A licensed arborist, Allgeier's passion for trees reflects in his conversation with the Times about the report. (Alex Mann / Carroll County Times)

Norway. Silver. Red. Sugar.

Westminster should avoid planting those species of Maple trees along its roads. The City should instead opt for crabapple, hawthorn, Japanese red maple or Spartan trees.


Such direction may not have been possible without the work of the Westminster Tree Commission, which on Monday, Dec. 10, presented its inaugural tree plan to the city’s Mayor and Common Council.

“The trees create shade, they’re beautiful, they make Main Street a nicer place,” Council President Dr. Robert Wack said during the meeting. “But beyond the cost of planting the tree and watering the tree, there’s the cost of what they do to the sidewalks, what they do to the roads, what they do to the foundations of adjacent buildings. They destroy things …


“It’s worth it to pay the extra money to do those repairs, to maintain the roads because of all the good the trees do.”

On June 17, Westminster city arborist Eric Schlitzer and the Westminster Tree Commission teamed up with Bartlett Tree Experts to release beneficial insects in

The mayor and city councilmembers lauded the volunteer commission’s work product, which required some seven meetings to develop.

“What you guys do is really important and probably underappreciated,” Councilman Tony Chiavacci told presenters Monday. “My daughter goes to college in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and it’s a beautiful little town, but as soon as I drove down their Main Street the first time I realized there’s no tree in sight. It’s completely devoid of all vegetation.

“It’s a very similar town to this in size, similar age, demographic and size. But it just looks so unbelievably plain not having trees anywhere in sight.”

The Times caught up with the Steve Allgeier, a licensed arborist and the chairman of the committee lawmakers praised. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the role of the Westminster Tree Commission? What was it designed for and what does it do?

A: It has a couple functions. Primarily it’s to help guide and advise the city — the city planners of Westminster. And also to encourage the use of street trees, or what they call “urban canopy,” developing an urban canopy and maintaining an urban canopy. I think that’s really the primary goal. We make recommendations. The beauty of a commission like this is we are kind of a mixed group: Some people are arborists, some people are citizens, some have connections with the area’s institutions.

Secondarily, we try to encourage not just the city, but the citizens to maintain their trees and plant trees where appropriate. It’s great, in this day and age at least, that there’s a lot of appreciation of trees. And as one of the council members brought up, there’s a cost to trees. He worded it as trees damage things. I wouldn’t quite go that far, but I think there is a cost. They do things that are considered negative some of the time, such as falling over, dying, eating sidewalks. But at the same time he listed all those beneficial things, such as providing shade, atmosphere in the sense of ambiance, and there’s all those pluses. Like with many things there’s great attributes and there’s some negative attributes.

But thirdly, the commission hosts a workshop and that’s been an ongoing venture for, I want to say, over 20 years. And it’s really done in conjunction with a company called Bartlett Tree Experts. And the workshop is targeting primarily other urban arborists. Arborists are people that are kind of individual tree experts, they don’t just remove trees, they prune trees, they diagnose problems trees are having and they make recommendations. So they’re professionals and our workshop primarily targets what are known as municipal or urban foresters or arborists. We do that once a year and that has been a big success. We usually get at least 100 arborists that come into the city, and they’re usually from municipalities around Maryland, a couple from Pennsylvania, Virginia, D.C. Like all these professions, there’s a requirement for them, meaning arborists, to have continuing education throughout their career and we offer that through this workshop.

Q: What went into developing this report? It had been a couple years since this report had happened, is that right?

A: Actually, this is a first and it’s called a Comprehensive Tree Plan. There were several things that kind of pushed us in that direction. We looked around.

I knew that a lot of towns that were slightly larger than Westminster that were within Maryland have these tree plans. And I thought, ‘Wow, we don’t have anything like that.’ There’s all sorts of benefits to these plans. That was probably one of the main incentives. And [Westminster Community Planner Andrew Gray] agreed. We fall within a qualification, or a recognition, Tree City USA, it’s run by National Arbor Day committee. And they give that designation for cities that continue to work on their urban canopy. One of the ways of doing that is by adding a comprehensive tree plan. So we said, ‘You know what, this is something that we really need to do. Not just to check off that box for National Arbor Day, but to give us some guidance and direction for where we want to go.’


I think in the past, for better or worse, we tended to be a little responsive. We’d say, ‘Hey, we ought to do this or that,’ but with the tree plan it can kind of give us some long-term goals and it is also something that the public can look up online or, I guess print, and they can see what our plans are focused on and where were are.

So this is a document that’s not sort of sitting there, but we constantly update it like all these other municipalities.

Q: What is the significance of this plan? What does it mean for the City of Westminster?

A: It’s a great snapshot at least at this point of where we have trees and where we don’t, and it kind of gives some guidance into the future of how we wan to maybe develop a better urban canopy.

Q: What should people know about street trees? What’re the most important things?

A: Obviously trees help to keep our air a bit cleaner and also they tend to, if placed in the right spots, reduce stormwater issues.

But I think the biggest benefit is an improved general ambiance of a city. Part of that may be attributed to just the shade that they provide, but I think that a lot of people just like that overall fact of just having trees around. It gives the community and retail areas a warmer feel.

And it’s not necessarily the temperature, it’s just that ambiance. That’s hard to [quantify]. You can measure a tree’s diameter, you can measure the cooling effects, you can measure the cost. But those types of benefits are hard to [quantify]. I think they’re probably some of the biggest benefits you get from trees.

Q: What about property values?


A: There’ve been several different organizations that have looked at differences in residential values and one of the big factors they find a common thread, a lot of these areas that have higher values have more trees in that area. I don’t know if that’s causative or not, but the feeling is that it contributes to better home values.


Q: Can you spell out the ecological benefits?

A: Air quality. I mean trees are great at sequestering carbon and that’s a big factor that’s being considered in global warming. Politics tends to interrupt a lot of that, or there’s some people that say, ‘Hey, global warming isn’t a big issue,’ but there is a recognition that trees will absorb carbon. A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, trees litter.’ Sure they put down some leaves in the fall and sometimes you get fruit that’s shed, but the big plus is that carbon sequestration they talk about.

The other big benefit, I think, is in the cooling effect you get from having street trees. They’re getting solar energy, which could be heating a sidewalk, or storefront, and they’re reducing that heat load directly hitting those surfaces.

Again, if you have enough street trees, they can help to improve water infiltration. Now it’s a tough argument in a downtown area, unless you have large masses of trees with exposed root surface. You don’t find that in Westminster because we’re an old city and the trees that are right off of Main Street tend to get slipped into what’re known as tree pits. Those tree pits probably capture very little water, but maybe in larger areas around the city that aren’t necessarily Main Street or Pennsylvania Avenue, where you have these large open areas that are surrounded or contained by trees, they probably help to capture a fair amount of moisture in the soil, rather than running off.

Q: Looking to the future, what at least in the near future is the plan for street trees in Westminster?

A: Well, we’re still working on writing some of the recommendations. But one of the biggest ones is to actually improve our inventory and also our accounting of trees. And what I mean by that when I say accounting, is trying to figure out where — we’ve already done most of it for Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue — are the addresses of particular trees and what species are at each address. And when we say address, it’s actually a GPS location and it could be in front of or between two houses but we want to find out what species we have. Roughly then our next step is not just a head count, but then also to qualify and quantify the condition of these trees, how big they are and how healthy they are, and possibly develop a list of things that need to be done to improve the health of the tree.

We know that there’s a section of Main Street where the trees have kind of aged out. A big bunch of them will be coming out. It’s going to cause some consternation because people hate to see trees cut down. But if a tree becomes a liability, such as it’s dropping limbs or it’s going to fall over, we need to be out in front of that before that happens. So we’ll be removing trees and then trying to put in some other species or some of the same species. That’s probably our biggest goal in planning for the future, at least getting hands on what we actually have.

Q: McDaniel College students are going to help out, what’s their role going to be?

A: We’re still working with the environmental science coordinator. … These environmental science students have Capstone projects and the professor, Dr. Jason Scullion, said, ‘Hey, you know what, this would be a good project for students, learning how to work with the city but also in capturing data for trees.’

We could teach the students just some basic skills, like how to measure the diameter of the tree — and that’s done at chest height — and then also naming the species. The hard part is then having them do an overall assessment of the tree. It’s not going to be as valuable as a trained professional, but they’re probably going to be able to gather some data that we just don’t have on a lot of these trees.

Q: Why is it so important to have a really good inventory of trees?

A: I think the biggest factor right now, and it emerged kind of in that example of what happened in the Midwest, is that most urban planners and tree groups realize that it is to your detriment to have all your eggs in one basket. And the example is out in the Midwest with those ash trees, many of those cities were nearly 100 percent ash tree populated and all of the sudden this bug that nobody thought would make it here made it here and spread like wildfire because all they had to eat was their favorite food. And they virtually killed every tree in all those cities in the Midwest. And it’s just shown up here in the last 10 years and it’s starting to eat up a lot of our ash trees. We’re lucky because we don’t have many Ash trees in our cities, at least in Westminster. But we want to take a look and say, ‘Hey, have we diversified our trees?’

It’s challenging to diversify your trees because cities are a challenging place to plant trees and not every species works well in a city. So we have to look at a limited sort of basket of species and make sure that we diversify within our own city. It’s like investing in retirement, you don’t stick everything in one stock, you mix it up.

And that’s the idea with this inventory, we’ll say ‘Hey, you know what, we’re really thick on this one species. We need to, over time, as these plants die start mixing it up a bit.’ That’s going to be the biggest value of this tree plan.

And then the next one would be trying to identify some areas that aren’t necessarily Main Street, because pretty much every single one of those pits is occupied, where we can plant trees. Maybe there’s some parks or bump-outs in parking areas that could be good options for more trees.

Q: It’s clear that you’re very passionate about trees, and I’m wondering when that started? What sparked it?

A: I was lucky. I grew up outside of Baltimore, in Catonsville, and Catonsville is well-known for having these old oak trees all over the place. So I grew up with acorns in my back pocket and probably close to 18 trees on a relatively small lot in Catonsville, which was standard.


Ever since then I’ve been involved with trees in one way or another. I was with the University of Maryland Extension and did quite a bit on tree care and how to prune a tree correctly and how to select trees. And now I’m working doing environmental studies on forests, mostly for military bases around Maryland. It’s always followed me around, that kind of passion for trees.

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