When Piccadilly Road residents gathered Sept. 29 to pay their last respects to an old street tree that Baltimore County was cutting down, neighbor Kathy Osborn took cellphone photos for posterity.
"It's always sad when a tree comes down," said Osborn, an 11-year resident.
But some residents, environmental activists and community leaders in the Towson area say, and county officials confirm, that the majestic willow oak tree was healthy but was cut down because it was buckling the sidewalk and posed a pedestrian hazard in the public right-of-way.
Residents and activists say it didn't have to come to that, and that it happens all too often in the area's older neighborhoods, where many of the trees were planted when the communities were built decades ago.
Larry Fogelson, a retired state planner and co-chairman of the Rodgers Forge Community Association's tree committee, Tree Rodgers Forge, said his street, Murdock Road, is dominated by silver maples and sycamore trees, in a neighborhood that dates to the 1920s and was built out in the 1950s.
"And they're all getting old," Fogelson said.
"It's immensely sad to see a healthy tree being taken down," said 20-year West Towson resident Nancy Mears as she watched the removal of the Piccadilly Road tree, which she said had been there at least as long as she has.
"This was a particularly gorgeous tree; nothing wrong with it," Mears said. "It's a source of beauty and shade in our neighborhood."
The incident raises issues that go far beyond the removal of the tree in West Towson. Residents, elected officials and environmental activists question tree removal policies and say local governments should consider fixing or bypassing sections of sidewalks instead of removing healthy trees.
At a time when the Towson area is increasingly being developed, "We can't just keep deforesting and getting rid of trees, because it has an impact," said Wendy Jacobs, who also lives on Piccadilly Road and is co-founder of the newly formed Green Towson Alliance.
Cost of sidewalk vs. tree removal
But county officials say that street tree problems were bound to happen as older trees age.
"The issue with this tree, as well as many others is ... that many times they were planted with insufficient area to grow," said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman. She said the issue led the county in 2012 to implement a policy and guidelines for planting trees.
In the Piccadilly Road case, the tree sat in the right-of-way in front of a house in the 600 block, and the property owners, who were cited by the county earlier this year for having a damaged sidewalk, requested that the county take down the tree, Kobler said. She said the citation required the homeowners to fix the sidewalk or have the county take down the tree, and such citations can lead to fines for non-compliance.
The county follows Maryland Forest Service criteria authorizing the removal of trees that are dead, in decline or causing property damage, Kobler said.
"Sidewalks are the responsibility of the property owner and it is the property owner who is liable for potential lawsuits and the cost of repairing the sidewalk," Kobler said in an email, citing information provided by Jim Lathe, director of the county Bureau of Highways, which oversees removal of street trees."
Darin Crew, senior forestry manager for the regional environmental group, Blue Water Baltimore, took an interest in the West Towson case and estimated the oak tree was at least 60 feet and likely as old as the community, which dates to the late 1950s, according to the West Towson Improvement Association website.
Crew questioned why the county places the legal burden on homeowners to fix sidewalks, but Baltimore City takes responsibility for its sidewalks under such circumstances. Crew suggested a cost-sharing arrangement between the county and residents in such cases, and said he would like to see the county code, state law and the Americans With Disabilities Act be rewritten to be "more tree-friendly."
The couple that owns the Piccadilly Road house where the tree was removed could not be reached for comment.
Jacobs said there were other less expensive alternatives to removing the tree and that "other forward-looking cities" have taken measures to spare such trees by reconfiguring sidewalks, shaving down damaged sections so they are even again, or constructing ramps over the damaged sections.
But Kobler said, "If the tree stays, it is usually only a matter of time before the sidewalk lifts again. Not many people want to pay for sidewalk replacement every few years."
And with more than 2,300 miles of roadside sidewalk in the county, "it would not be practical to inspect and maintain that kind of infrastructure," she said. The [Baltimore County] Bureau of Highways has looked at a number of alternatives and has not found any that we feel are cost efficient and provide a safe traveling surface. With that said, if there is sufficient property, and the property owner agrees, we have moved the sidewalk around trees in order to save them."
In the Piccadilly Road case, the property owners opted to remove the tree, she said.
"As for [the] cost of sidewalk replacement versus tree removal, it all depends on how much sidewalk needs to be repaired and how big the tree is. In most cases there is little difference," Kobler said.
"Also remember that the area between the sidewalk and curb was not originally intended to have trees in it," Kobler said. "It was originally designed for a utility strip to keep lines out of the road to allow easy access and not disrupt the roadways."
Looking for alternatives
County Councilman David Marks, who represents the Towson area and made a last-ditch effort Sept. 29 to buy time to save the tree on Piccadilly Road, said he would like to talk to county officials about alternatives.
One option, Marks said, is to do what the county and the Burkleigh Square Community Association did in 2011, when decades-old street trees in the 70-year-old neighborhood were wreaking havoc on its sidewalks. Marks brokered a deal in which the county cut down 14 trees, replaced the curbs and gutters for better drainage and replaced stretches of sidewalks, for which they charged homeowners $6.50 per square foot, according to a Towson Times story at the time.
Greg Bauer, now president of the community association, said most people in the community were satisfied with the work on Burkleigh and Burkshire roads, and that it didn't cost residents a lot of money.
"I think there were people who were upset that they lost their beautiful shade trees," Bauer said. "But what are you going to do?"
Marks also said the county is doing its part to plant new trees.
"The county has a very aggressive tree-planting program," Marks said. He said 23 trees were planted in Rodgers Forge alone in late August, and that he is working with Blue Water Baltimore to plant as many as 40 trees in Towson Manor Village and East Towson.
Jacobs said the ease and low cost, $25, of getting a permit to remove a tree dissuades people from looking for alternatives.
State Del. Steve Lafferty, who represents Towson, agrees.
"For a few years now, I've been very concerned about the county's process for letting people take down trees in the right-of-way for very little money," Lafferty said, adding that he would like to see people pay more for the permits and replant trees as part of the county approval process.
"When you're deciding that the sidewalk condition allows the individual to have [trees] removed, I just think that's bad policy," Lafferty said. "I think it calls for a lot more conversation and a rethink by the county."
Crew, of Blue Water Baltimore, said he understands that the county is concerned about legal liability.
"It just seems to me there's got to be a better way of doing it," he said, adding that he thinks local jurisdictions have the authority to interpret the Maryland Forest Service's criteria as they see fit.
He also said the county's focus should be more on fixing sidewalks than on removing trees that damage them. In the case of the uneven sidewalk on Piccadilly Road, "If you grind that lip down, there's not a tripping hazard," he said.
The same thing has happened in Rodgers Forge and many of Towson's older neighborhoods with mature tree canopies, said Fogelson, of Rodgers Forge, who has led efforts to plant trees there.
He maintains it's less expensive to fix sidewalks than to spend several thousand dollars to remove trees, but he thinks the county is looking for the quicker fix.
"Maybe they're a little too happy to take down the trees," Fogelson said. "It's a county attitude problem."
Crew said that as a result of healthy street trees being cut down, Blue Water Baltimore is planting more trees in yards now, to avoid the issue.
The debate comes too late to save the willow oak on Piccadilly Road.