Highway Buffer Trees ‘Mistakenly’ Bulldozed by Billboard Company
September 23, 2021
Story update (May 25, 2022): Restitution was recently agreed upon by the city of Providence and Lamar Advertising, requiring the advertising company to plant 109 native trees on the slope alongside Interstate 95 to replace the trees that were cleared last year by a subcontractor working for the Louisiana-based business. Lamar will also pay $13,200 to the city’s tree planting fund for planting trees in Ward 10 and for any replacements that might be needed for trees on the clear-cut slope, according to the city forester.
PROVIDENCE — A bank of trees on city property in Washington Park alongside Interstate 95 was “erroneously” chopped down earlier this month, according to city officials, triggering concerns about tree equity in an area lacking canopy coverage and the benefits it provides.
An unknown number of highway buffer trees were removed Sept. 7 from 1101 Eddy St., a 0.82-acre lot owned by the city and leased to Lamar Advertising Co., a Louisiana-based outdoor advertising company that operates billboards and transit displays in the United States and Canada. The city has requested that Lamar Advertising, which subcontracted the bulldozing of the buffer, replant trees on the lot, which hosts a single billboard.
“The city of Providence had previously worked with the lessee of the lot to allow tree trimming for visibility purposes, but the tree removal that occurred went well beyond what was authorized,” said Faith Chadwick, deputy director of communications for the city.
Michael Murphy, general manager at Lamar Advertising’s Providence office, said the company was given verbal approval by the city forester to trim and remove invasive species on the property.
According to Murphy, a mix-up with the subcontractor hired to do the trimming resulted in the removal of nearly all vegetation on the embankment, which sits above I-95 and a spur of the Providence and Worcester Railroad.
“It was erroneous on our part,” he said. “It was a miscommunication.”
Chadwick confirmed the lot “had a mixture of invasive and native trees,” but was unable to confirm how many trees of which types were removed. As of Sept. 21, the city was still working “to assess the current conditions of the lot and determine next steps.”
In comparing Google Maps aerial imagery to the scene, ecoRI News estimated about one-third an acre of tree coverage and underbrush was removed.
According to Chadwick, the city is working with Lamar Advertising to “rectify the situation.”
“We’re going to meet [and] we’re going to come up with a plan where we’re going to plant some trees there so we’re both satisfied,” Murphy said. “It’ll look better than it is now.”
But for Linda Perri of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, it’s not enough — and it indicates bigger problems of tree equity in the city.
“You can’t just go chopping down trees in an environmentally precarious area,” she said, noting the lack of tree coverage in the community when compared to other areas of Providence, as well as the high rates of asthma and pollution in the neighborhoods bordering the Port of Providence.
According to American Forests’ Tree Equity Score online tool, the area surrounding the Eddy Street property had 16 percent tree cover before the recent clear-cut.
“What I see is trees going down and not enough going up,” Perri said. “We could use a lot more trees.”
Studies have shown urban trees can lead to better health outcomes and social cohesion, as well as reduce pollution, urban heat and noise. That buffer effect is especially important adjacent to highways and heavily trafficked routes where higher levels of noise and pollution are being spewed out, according to Greg Gerritt, local activist and administrator of the Environment Council of Rhode Island.
Most of the city is in “tree deficit,” due to a combination of tree sickness and inappropriate development, according to Gerritt.
“The places that are hardest to keep trees are the low-income neighborhoods,” he said, “and they’re the ones that need it most.”
Trees and green infrastructure also play an important role in limiting runoff and erosion. Though, according to Tom Ciuba, vice president of communications at Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services Inc., the exposed embankment — as well as the unassociated collapse of a retaining wall on the property — posed no concern for the Providence and Worcester Railroad.
According to Amelia Rose, executive director of urban sustainability nonprofit Groundwork Rhode Island, more than 170 trees are set to be planted in the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods with money from last year’s Sims Metal Management Clean Air Act settlement. Rose noted about 50 trees will be planted in the vicinity of Allens Avenue, Oxford Street, and Byfield Street this fall.
Though local planting drives will help improve tree canopy in the long-term, Gerritt said these young trees don’t exactly fill the gap left by the old. To maintain the same health benefits and carbon capture, Lamar Advertising “should be planting 10 times as much,” he said.
According to Chadwick, the city is determining “if the fines and replacement measures outlined in the code [Chapter 23 1/2 of Providence’s Code of Ordinances] are applicable in this scenario.” But neighborhood advocates said action, beyond in-kind tree replacement, is rarely taken.
“We need more policies and mechanisms and tools,” said Cassie Tharinger, executive director of the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program, a community-driven tree stewardship program. “It takes a second to clear-cut a tree, and even if we confirm that, no, you weren’t supposed to do that, the trees are gone and the buffer for the highway is gone.”