OP-ED: WSSC chain saws threaten Tree City

IMAGE: Most of these trees in the back yards for two blocks of Eastern and Westmoreland Avenues, are scheduled to be clear-cut.


Author Beverly Habada served as Takoma Park City Manager, 1992-1999 and Takoma Park Assistant City Administrator 1984-1992.

In 1983, Takoma Park City Councilmember Lynne Bradley introduced legislation to protect and preserve the city’s tree canopy. It was one of the first tree ordinances in the country—and it was a prescient act at a time when there was little acknowledgment of global warming. The adoption of the Tree Ordinance burnished the Takoma Park’s image as a community dedicated to the environment. Since the Tree Ordinance was enacted, there have been many revisions to further strengthen the law.

 Clearly Takoma Park supports efforts to mitigate global warming by acting locally, right?

 Chain saws are revving

Fast forward to the present.

For the past five years, homeowners in the Little Eastern neighborhood have been actively engaged in a WSSC horror show.

In 2011, WSSC proposed several solutions to the problem of updating water and sewer lines, starting with the most environmentally friendly proposition of directional drilling technology to keep the water and sewer lines in the backyard alignment. This would have had minimal impact on the tree canopy.

WSSC dropped this approach in 2014, replacing it with a plan for total front alignment. This would entail outfitting every house with a grinder pump for the sewer and a new water connection—in the front. This was an environmentally conscious solution with minimal impact to private property. There was push-back to this option from some homeowners when WSSC told them WSSC would pay for initial installation of the grinder pumps but would not be responsible for any repair or replacement of the grinder pumps after the 12-year warranty expired.

Then, in February 2016, WSSC proposed front yard water connections for everyone, with a back yard trenching alignment for the majority of the 26 lots affected. Homeowners would grant permanent easements in their backyards to WSSC (who would pay each affected homeowner the estimated value of the land taken for the easement).


Most of these trees are currently slated to be clear-cut.

Residents were allowed to vote on their preferred option in the block to which they were assigned by WSSC. Homeowners could vote for grinder pumps or for a back yard trenching option. The backyard option would include the trenching of sewer lines in a 20-foot easement in the backyard. If selected, the backyard option would mean that 21 out of 26 lots would be cleared of trees, shrubbery, and habitat in the easement to accommodate WSSC equipment. No tree replacements would be allowed.

 In an April 20, 2016, letter to residents, WSSC declared the final results of the vote.

WSSC did not enumerate the vote tally, but advised that by majority vote the backyard trenching option had been selected.

Unfortunately, only last week the homeowners on Westmoreland Avenue (whose homes back up to the homes on Eastern Avenue) were notified by mail of the possible impact on them from this WSSC project. The project will likely impact their property values. More significantly, the work in the backyard of their neighbors will likely result in tree damage that requires tree removal on their properties. Homeowners on Westmoreland were not given a vote on this most recent and final option on the backyard trenching alignment, despite the fact that, it would certainly affect the tree shade in their backyards and the cooling on their property during summer months.

How did it come to this?

How did things move from the least destructive environmental option to the most destructive? How did the situation come to a resolution that is now pitting neighbor against neighbor over the tree canopy? Where was the city during the discussions over the past five years?

Apparently, at some point, some of the neighbors went to their elected county and state officials with their concerns about the long-term maintenance of the grinder pumps. WSSC was persuaded by letters they received from some Montgomery County councilmembers and from all members of the District 20 state legislative team pushing for the backyard trenching option because of growing resistance to grinder pumps and homeowner concerns about long-term maintenance costs of the grinder pumps (beyond the 12-year pump warranty).

After it appeared that more folks were going for the backyard trenching option, a few residents became concerned and contacted the Chesapeake Climate Action Network office in Takoma Park about the devastating impact this option would have on the tree canopy. They also began to talk with city, county and state officials about protecting the tree canopy.

Where has the City been?

Where has the City been in these discussions over the past five years? Apparently missing in action—or supportive of WSSC. The city arborist, until very recently, had not advised the Takoma Park Tree Commission of the pending devastating impact of the tree canopy destruction with this WSSC project. The city engineer attended multiple WSSC presentations and seemed to side with the WSSC engineers at each turn.

At one meeting the city engineer was so obviously supportive of WSSC engineers that he was upbraided publicly for his posture by a resident attending one of the WSSC presentations. He voiced no concern about mature trees or the possible change in the storm water flows that could impact Westmoreland residents because of the tree removal and a change in storm water drainage. Recent contacts by residents with Public Works Director Daryl Braithwaite (who supervises the above two staff people) produced a non-committal comment that the City does not have jurisdiction over WSSC.


Most of these trees are in the easement area to be cleared for a sewer line.

I can remember a time on June 29, 1997 (the day before the City became unified into Montgomery County), when as Takoma Park City Manager, I attended the grand opening of the Hiker-Biker Trail that was built by WSSC in conjunction with the re-do of the sewer lines that run along Sligo Creek. A former WSSC commissioner shared a bit of the history of the project with me. He confided that WSSC had been forced to undertake construction of the Hiker-Biker Trail at the same time as the re-do of the sewer lines (even though park development was clearly outside the purview of WSSC). I asked how that happened. He said they were told to do it by county-state leadership.

And, so, the Hiker-Biker Trail construction was included in the WSSC contract for the re-do of the sewer lines in Sligo Creek and was completed as a part of a multi-million dollar WSSC project. WSSC officials appeared proudly at the grand opening celebration of a park that was part of a sewer project.

Now, in 2016, after three different WSSC teams have worked on the solution to collapsed sewer lines on private property, the win appears to be going to the county and state officials doing the bidding of some of their constituents.

The loss goes to the tree canopy and the environment and obviously goes against what is being touted universally as the important need to combat climate change and global warming. Trees serve a purpose in absorbing carbon in Takoma Park, as well as in the Amazon rainforest.

Tree City no more

To paraphrase Saul Alinsky, does reconciliation happen when one side gets all the power and the other side gets reconciled to it—then you have reconciliation? Is pitting neighbor against neighbor acceptable to WSSC or to state, county, and city officials? Is it OK to sit on the minority until they get exhausted and get reconciled to a larger force against them? Does this fit with democracy in Takoma Park?

Does this major tree canopy destruction match the image and ethic of a green Takoma Park City government that is competing for a $5 million sustainability award, based on reducing energy usage by residents and businesses? Does the loss of this tree canopy pass the smell test as the City pursues this award, or is something rotten in Takoma Park and its government?

Is the WSSC-sponsored Green Fest that is being held at the Takoma Park Community Center this Saturday, April 30, just for show? WSSC really does exhibit chutzpah to include in water bills to City residents announcing its sponsorship of this event, while undertaking a project just a little over a mile away that eviscerates 25+ mature trees in a Takoma Park neighborhood.

Takoma Park have you lost your environmental soul?

FULL DISCLOSURE: Takoma Voice Managing Editor Bill Brown’s property is in the neighborhood affected by this issue, and he is involved in the effort to save the trees. He did not solicit this op-ed piece, nor did he assist in the writing or editing. He did provide the photos.






3 Comments on "OP-ED: WSSC chain saws threaten Tree City"

  1. I love the original headline – “Takoma Park – A City at War with Itself.” Talk about the old bait and switch! But I agree, we should fire the sustainability manager and her underlings and stop participating in silly contests.

  2. I am a resident in this neighborhood and I can tell you, this entire process from start to whenever it is finished has been absurd. WSSC has re-booted this project a number of times

    There is not much in this article I can disagree with but I really am not sure about the characterization that the minority were “sat on” until they became exhausted. That really doesn’t get at the ineptitude that has occurred from the beginning. I can tell you, there are many absurdities that were left out of this op-Ed piece.

    One final point: While I agree that the destruction of the tree canopy is awful this article is the first time I heard this project described in such a way, and I’ve kind of been intimately involved with it from the beginning. Furthermore, if we are going to use long-term thinking here, I’d like to point out that our current system is gravity-fed as is the backyard solution. Never mind that gravity is free and will be available forever. The grinder pumps will require the transfer of one form of energy to another – and if I have my physics straight and understand the law of conservation of energy properly – these grinder pumps will be less than 100% efficient – FOREVER. Or until a perpetual motion machine is invented.

    I applaud the long-term thinking of my Takoma Park neighbors. It is why I live here. But if we really are going to use long-term thinking, let’s really use long-term thinking.

  3. Just to be clear about my last comment – a little tricky for me between 3 and 4 AM – using climate change as an argument for saving these trees is not really possible in THIS particular instance.

    A gravity fed sewer system is carbon-neutral. Forever. No matter how you slice it, the grinder pumps will never be carbon neutral. At some point 20+ grinder pumps running intermittently for as long as we create sewage (presumably, forever) will produce more CO2 than 20+ trees can scrub from the atmosphere. And presumably one or more of those trees will naturally die in the future. Once we abandon gravity and go the way of the machine, we are stuck with the machine. And that is definitely not sustainable.

    I want to save as many trees as the next person, but please do not use climate change and environmentalism as the reason for saving these particular trees. In this case, the math is not on your side.

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