Letter: Cutting Down Trees At 52 Fearing Breaks My Heart

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Removal of hemlock tree at 52 Fearing. Photo: Edwin Gentzler

Waking up to the sound of loud buzzing last summer, I look out my window to see my new neighbor is not blowing leaves, but cutting down whole trees! A developer has recently acquired several lots in the Fearing Sreet. neighborhood, including the old home of Martha and Warren Averill.  Warren, who recently passed, was a popular Mass Aggie professor and an expert on trees.

The cutting happens quickly in the early morning:  tress are cut, chipped, and carted away, apparently before anyone notices. 

In July 2021, 19 trees on the east side of the 52 Fearing property, all visible from the street, including three large black walnut trees, a dozen smaller walnuts, several arborvitae, and a dawn redwood tree were cut down.  

In September 2021, another set of trees disappeared: this time a row of hemlocks on the west side, four trees altogether, one large and magnificent, two medium, and one smaller.  One was but eight feet from the road.  Everything is taken out: trees, branches, leaves, and stumps.  All that is left behind are woodchips and mud.

Hemlock remains at 52 Fearing St. Photo: Edwin Gentzler

During the summer of 2022, trees continue to come down as plans to “develop” the site emerge. There is an ongoing dispute between the Town of Amherst’s Conservation Commission and the new owner as to whether or not the area is a wetland.  This time Fearing Street residents were quick enough to catch landscapers in the act. One tree had been felled, and a second was cut halfway.  No chipping or carting away yet. 

We appealed to the Town of Amherst Conservation Commission, but they can do little to protect trees, as their focus is on wetlands (I suggest they be renamed the “Wetlands Commission” to avoid further public confusion).  We also appealed to the Historical Commission, as the Averill house is in the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historical District, but they also proved of little help, as their focus is on structures, not the trees or landscapes. No help there.

We contacted the Amherst tree warden, but he seems to look at only trees on public property and/or right of ways.  A couple of the developer’s trees were well within the ten-foot rule of the public throughway (no sidewalk on that side of the street), but the tree warden sided with the new owner.

There is a problem here, especially for climate-conscious advocates. 

Not only do the newly acquired Averill properties include wetlands and trees, but also provide habitat for deer, bear, fox, rabbits, squirrels, fish, frogs, birds, bees, and butterflies. This has led to confusion by residents in the Fearing/Lincoln/McClellen Street area, who hoped that the overworked Conservation Commission could do more. Wetlands laws are complicated, and the Conservation Commission already has plenty on its plate.

I am not sure what the Public Shade Committee’s charge is, but they seem to deal with public plantings and education.  So as far as I can tell, there is no tree advocate in the town government.

For example, last summer, I attended the Conservation Commission hearings for the application by the Shutesbury Solar LLC, in which they proposed to cut down 45vacres of forests to erect a solar-panel site. The Shutesbury Road abutters were livid that acres of living forest were going to be cut down, not just for the trees to be eradicated, but for all the wildlife supported within. Environmentalists from not just the town but all over the state were outraged. Cut down trees to put up solar panels?

But the Conservation Commission focused primarily on wetlands and bordering vegetation, which comprised a small portion of the property in question, and not the trees or wildlife.  The CC chair, having trouble communicating the narrow focus, even had to dismiss one outspoken complainant from the meeting because of his continued concern for plants and animals.

Where to turn?  It seems that the public is not aware that, in the town of Amherst, there is no committee to protect trees, animals, or other forms of wildlife.

The late Professor Warren Averill, former owner, had travelled the world and brought back all sorts of trees, from Japan and the East especially.  He was part of the faculty when William Clark was establishing an exchange with Hokkaido University in Japan, certainly of historical interest to international agriculture, not to mention the town of Amherst.

Prof. Averill’s lots were full of trees, beautiful trees, exotic trees, and historic trees.  There were chestnuts (endangered in the USA), Katsura Trees (Japan), Red Maples (one with a ten-foot trunk, an historic tree in Amherst), Sugar Maples, Japanese Maples, Willow, Birch, Beech, Bamboo, Rose Bushes, Blueberry Bushes, a variety of Pine, and so on.  One tree that was cut down on 52 Fearing was a Dawn Redwood, once thought to be extinct, which seems like a crime to me. Another Dawn Redwood is marked with a red dot for cutting.   

The supposed “vacant” lots at 52 Fearing was where a professor of Agriculture and Forestry cultivated a variety of trees, from the region and well beyond, carefully attending to the plants, measuring and nurturing their adaptability and progress, for over 50 years.

The property was like an arboretum or a botanical garden, a rare urban forest that should have been treasured by the town. Is destroying it really what the town’s residents want?

Does the town of Amherst protect historic trees?  Unique trees?  Educational trees?  Endangered trees?   My daughter, who happily grew up on Fearing St., now lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, and there no one can cut down a tree without a permit, whether the land is public or private.  Homeowners have to apply for permission to remove a tree, and permission is seldom granted.  The town goes to great length to preserve its canopy.

I currently winter in Sarasota, Florida, where if anyone cuts down a tree, you not only have to get permission, but you have to replant another tree (of 2″ diameter, or 3″ if the tree cut down was deemed a canopy tree).  It seems sensible to safeguard the beauty of the town, preserve wildlife habitat, and protect the environment.

As far as I can discern, the town of Amherst has no similar policy.  I suggest a first step might be to see how other towns and cities manage their trees and canopies.  If the protests of tree removal in Hadley, or the cherry tree lawsuit in Northampton, or the concern over the silver maples demise in Amherst are any indication, it is a very sensitive issue, and town residents are very concerned.

Some environmentalists argue that one of the best things any individual can do to protect against global warming is to not cut down trees.  The next best thing is to plant a new tree. 

Edwin Gentzler

Edwin Gentzler is a retired UMass professor of Comparative Literature.  He is part of a neighborhood coalition trying to protect and preserve Tan Brook.  He can be reached at edwin.gentzler@gmail.com.

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3 thoughts on “Letter: Cutting Down Trees At 52 Fearing Breaks My Heart

  1. The destruction of the irreplaceable trees at 52 Fearing St. is such a SHAME! Those who care about trees in Amherst will have to try and develop safeguards for the precious resource of our trees. I am so disappointed that no one in town government will advocate for the preservation of these priceless specimens. I lived at 27 Fearing St. for nearly 50 years. I grew up in the neighborhood with the very trees that have been destroyed. I knew Warren Averill well. He encouraged neighbors to garden on his land, and my father, Mack Drake, who was a professor of Plant and Soil Science at UMass, accepted Warren’s kind invitation for many years, commenting that it was the finest soil that he had ever worked with. It is tragic that these priceless resources are being “ravaged,” rather than reserved.

  2. Amherst has always had a poor record when it comes to trees, something counterintuitive for an alleged progressive community. I’m thinking the town Energy & Climate Action Committee needs to step up and pay attention to how much tree cutting and lack of maintenance is taking place in town. After all, trees are on the front line of natural carbon capture in these times of climate chaos. They also provide other public services (for free 24/7/365) such as heat reduction, water retention, habitat and more. In addition, planting small saplings to “replace” mature trees is a fallacy. It takes saplings upwards of 100 years to capture as much CO2 emissions and store as much carbon as full-grown trees. Like we always say on The Enviro Show: “It’s the Climate Crisis, Stupid!”

  3. Does the Town Council and Town Manager need a conscience scale to determine whether the weight of taxes from new commercial development is balanced by the destruction of our environment, the aesthetics of our landscape, maintenance of trees that provide oxygen for us to breathe, balance the climate, maintain healthy soil, prevent flooding, provide a wildlife habitat, and are a necessary part of our symbiotic relation to the natural world. Also, renewal of what is being cut down would take several generations. New tax dollars at what price? And solar fields can be built on meadows, unused farm or grazing land. Why allow forests, so vital to our planet’s survival to be eliminated? Who are we? What are we? Do we want Amherst to be an embarrassment, rather than an example of a responsible and attractive town?

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