OSWEGO — A city decision to replace a variety of trees from the downtown West First Street area Thursday morning is sparking controversy among city officials, residents and local ecology experts.
A collection of oak, maple and honey locust trees — all native species, according to local urban ecology experts — were uprooted in favor of Japanese lilac trees, which city officials say “will really dress up downtown.”
“The trees we are removing that were planted years ago are basic trees that were the cheapest option at the time, are inconsistent in height, rather bland in appearance, and have overgrown their space in some cases,” Mayor Billy Barlow told The Palladium-Times Thursday. “The new Japanese lilacs — set to arrive on Monday — will look much more symmetrical, will be the appropriate height of 15 to 20 feet, will visually enhance the area and be consistent. I believe they will really dress up downtown once they come in.”
Oswego City Councilor Kevin Hill, whose district includes the downtown area, said the removed trees were neglected for years. The Third Ward Republican brought the issue up for discussion during the city’s Common Council Administrative Services Committee meeting at the beginning of September.
“The decision was made because, for years, the city has had no real comprehensive plan for the selection and management of the trees that they have in that public space,” Hill said in an interview Thursday. “Throughout the years, trees have been taken down and replanted, and it has been done piecemeal with no real consideration given the long term impact that they’ll have on downtown.”
Hill noted while voting on the replacement of the trees is not under the purview of the council, it is more of a “DPW, administrative or higher level decision” and the issue was brought forth due to potential concerns surrounding pedestrian safety and aesthetics.
“We were actually voting on the purchase of permeable surfaces to surround the trunks of the tree to make it safer and make it neater,” Hill said in reference to the discussion held during September’s committee meeting. “The grates surrounding the trees are falling apart, they are broken and don’t fit the trees. So that’s really what prompted this discussion.”
Hill said he also consulted with a member of the Oswego Tree Advisory Board, an organization that provides insight on issues regarding tree planting, maintenance and preservation to the mayor and officials from the Common Council and the Department of Public Works (DPW), among other local government agencies.
“It was discussed, ‘would replacing the trees be the best option?’ And the consensus at the time was that it would,” Hill said, noting he apporached a member of the Tree Advisory Board about “replacing the downtown trees with appropriate trees and eliminating the safety issues” and was met with an affirmative response.
Urban ecology experts and members of the city’s Tree Advisory Board denounced the move, noting the new species to be planted offers “zero ecological benefit.”
Brad Gibson, a member of the Tree Advisory Board, was incensed by the tree removal, noting creating a monoculture for the downtown tree population could be detrimental to the safety of the flora.
“Tree diseases and infections don’t spread across species boundaries,” Gibson, who has worked on urban forestry projects in Philadelphia, said. “If all the trees are the same species, there is a higher chance a potential infection can spread to all the trees. This is a relic of the past. Cities don’t really do this anymore.”
Gibson spoke on the issue during the Sept. 9 Common Council meeting, where he addressed his concerns and said the move was not “friendly to the environment.”
Addressing the tripping hazard concerns, Gibson said a potential and cost-effective solution would be to shave the root without severing the ties between it and the tree.
Tree Advisory Board member and Common Council candidate Jonathan Ashline said non-native tree species will also have a more difficult time adapting to new environments.
“Typically, you want to do a soil study and pH studies to make sure the non-native trees can even survive in the new locations,” Ashline, a Democrat, said. “They also invite non-local pests and wildlife that can severely disrupt or even destroy the existing plants.”
Ashline also noted the bigger trees found downtown were helpful in taking in a sizeable amount of CO2.
“From an economic standpoint, the larger trees added money to the storefronts’ property values,” Ashline continued. “They also provided shade to pedestrians as their shopped and ate outside. From the community’s side, many residents and shop owners spoke out against this plan. And to see the city going ahead with this anyway is going to severely damage the community’s trust in its leaders.”
Rivers Edge Taqueria owner Rick Erickson told The Palladium-Times the move affects the atmosphere of downtown.
“They brought a certain ambiance to the street, the trees. It will affect me in the summer time, big time,” Erickson said, noting the outside seating portion of his business could suffer due to a lack of shade.