Bethesda neighborhood fights to save 60-year-old tree from plans to build a sidewalk

Bethesda neighborhood fights to save tree from sidewalk construction

100-foot Norway Spruce is more than 60 years old

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David Shiff is challenging Montgomery County's plan to remove a 100-foot-tall Norway Spruce tree to build a sidewalk in his Bethesda neighborhood.

Photo from David Shiff

This story was updated at 6:10 p.m. June 30, 2020, to clarify the location of the tree.

A Bethesda neighborhood is battling the county over plans to build a sidewalk, threatening the life of a 60-year-old, 100-foot-tall Norway Spruce tree.

The tree is on McKinley Street in the Huntington Terrace neighborhood. It is near a house owned by David Shiff. A survey map of the land shows that the property line goes right through the tree.

The neighborhood’s civic association voted 26-0 in January 2019 to oppose the sidewalk portion that would disturb the tree’s shallow roots and could damage six other trees.

“The maturity, scenic beauty, valuable shade, protection from run-off and the valuable resource they provide for reduction of greenhouse gases, as well as the irreplaceability of these trees were all cited as considerations for seeking to save these trees,” the association’s letter to Frank Kingsley, the county’s sidewalks program manager, reads.

According to a June 4, 2020, final notice, the county Department of Transportation was moving forward with the project.

The department is still attempting to find an alternative that would spare the tree. If it cannot, a third-party arborist will determine if the tree could survive sidewalk construction. If the arborist says it wouldn’t, the DOT will remove the tree.

“If the damage to the roots is going to be so great that either the tree is not going to survive, or the tree will become unstable … then the only safe thing to do is going to be to remove that tree,” Tim Cupples, the chief of the county’s Division of Transportation Engineering, said in an interview. “We’re not done trying yet.”

Cupples said construction is slated for this summer.

The sidewalk is part of the Bradmoor Community Sidewalk Proposal, proposed in 2018. It would allow safer travel to Bradley Hills Elementary School.

Shiff, a civic association member, said cutting down the tree to build a sidewalk would hurt the neighborhood.

He said there is an existing east-to-west sidewalk north of his property, which allows people to safely walk to the school.

“Not that I want to deny people a sidewalk or safety, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary,” Shiff said. 

There is currently a partial sidewalk on McKinley Street, but it stops at Shiff’s property.

Hannah Henn, a strategic communications manager for the DOT, said an alternative route doesn’t always change pedestrian behavior.

“They’re going to go into the street if they don’t have a safe alternative,” she said. “We want people to know where to walk and how they can walk safely. And having a continuous sidewalk is a huge aspect of providing that for pedestrians.”

Shiff said the county’s many open comment periods and public hearings on the project have not been genuine efforts to save the tree.

“All this was just pabulum, and making it sound like they were going to try to save my tree, when I would have to say they have no serious intent to save the tree,” he said.

Shiff said it could be costly to take down trees and relocate a utility pole. He worries that the lack of trees in the neighborhood would decrease property values.

Amanda Farber, an environmental advocate in Bethesda, said sidewalks and trees should not be mutually exclusive.

“You’re talking about two equally important pieces of infrastructure,” she said. “It’s just so unfortunate that it has become like one pitted against the other.”

Cupples said the DOT looked at potential solutions to spare the tree, such as using a wooden sidewalk. He said this would eventually wear down and not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The DOT has also considered tearing up and narrowing the street to include a sidewalk farther from Shiff’s property. The county arborist believed this option would still disturb the roots, which extend past the curb.

The street is wide enough to accommodate a sidewalk if concrete were poured on the asphalt, but Cupples said this will affect drainage flow and be an obstacle for snowplow drivers.

The DOT also considered putting up posts or putting down paint to indicate a barrier, but Cupples said this doesn’t always prevent crashes. The county’s Vision Zero initiative, hoping to end all serious and fatal crashes by 2030, prioritizes physical sidewalks.

“If we just put up some flex post or just put some paint down and said ‘walk here,’ we’re not separating that person from the traffic,” he said. “We know that human error will occur.”

Farber said there is no harm in trying this method, then re-evaluating to see if a physical sidewalk is necessary.

“If it doesn’t work, and if they’re like, ‘Yeah, people are still walking in the road’ or whatever the issue is, then they could go and do it,” Farber said. “You would think they could try.”

Cupples said the county plants three trees for each it takes down, but Farber contends this is not an equal trade.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all replanted right where it was taken out,” she said. “That takes decades to mature. And we know that the benefits of trees pay off more and more as they mature.”

Shiff said he has spent thousands of dollars through the years to care for the tree, and believes it is one of the neighborhood’s crown jewels.

“If somebody just looked at this tree and looked at the street, looked at everything, they’d go, ‘Here’s a simple way to solve this problem,’” he said. “But nobody has even looked up from the ground.”

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