Borough councilmen Rich DiGregorio and Jack Hansen think the borough is barking up the wrong tree in paying a $117,000 change order for installation of trees on Main Street.
At a council meeting last week, Hansen made a motion to table a vote on the payment and DiGregorio seconded.
DiGregorio said the borough could purchase smaller caliber trees at a cheaper price.
“One thing we are in all agreement with is we want the best trees we can get for the borough,” said Hansen. “For me, there’s still many, many questions out there. I’d like to table this until next month, and get more information and more educated on it.”
It was met with no support from the rest of council, for a 2-7 vote.
Prior to the vote, several council people and public works director Jake Ziegler warned Hansen and DiGregorio meant tabling the vote now means the prices that they could get for the trees would not be good tomorrow.
“You’re not saving any money,” said councilman Mike Riccio.
Following that, council then vote 7-2 to approve the payment.
Main Street’s trees, as part of the PennDOT-managed streetscape project, have been a controversial subject in Lansdale for the past month.
Here’s the gist: a former plan for street trees, developed by landscape architect firm DePollo, hired by the borough five years ago, called for the removal of the 23-year-old Bradford pears and replace them with a variety of 25 species of trees in varying sizes.
Once it was determined most of those species were either unavailable or inappropriate for street trees, a change order was issued.
Now, the number of species is four instead of 25. Tack on costs for new planting pit sizing, specially-engineered planting soil and two-third more trees than what were removed from Main Street, and it totals out to $117,000.
Councilman Mike Sobel took the list of original trees and went over the list with a landscape architect and arborist.
“These trees just weren’t right. Half of them he either hadn’t even heard of or where to come up with them,” Sobel said.
Councilman Mike Riccio said the Bradford pears, which have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, were not an appropriate tree for the downtown.
“I think if you ask (realtor) Gerry Snyder, who has been sued over his sidewalks being heaved up from the trees, it’s something we want to take a great detail in making sure that didn’t happen again,” he said. “Our goal is to do it right the first time, not have curbs and sidewalks heave up, so we don’t have trip and fall injuries, so we don’t have business owners getting sued because we picked the wrong trees.”
Sobel brought his findings to the borough planning commission.
Nate Burns, a member of the planning commission and landscape architect with Lang Engineering and Environmental Services, explained that the varying sizes of the 23 species in the original plan would have resulted in a different size street tree and different life spans for each species of tree.
“Pretty quickly, you can see the negative aspect that would have had on creating a cohesive streetscape in the downtown,” Burns said.
The honing-down to four species is a more standard municipal practice, he said. The four species are larger trees, which reduces the potential of branches hitting people in the head as the tree matures. The longer-lived species are more appropriate for streetscapes than the originals, he said.
“The trees that we’re replacing, we’ve added elems, we’ve added London plane trees, which is kind of like a sycamore only more disease-resistant, and honeylocusts. Elms can live for 200 years,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect to see 200-year-old elms on Main Street, but there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that would there?”
“Only if I’m around to see that,” quipped councilwoman Mary Fuller.
Burns also explained the decision to increase the size of the planting pits and the use of engineered soils.
“Would that be the planting soil mix on here?” asked Hansen. “The $25,000 worth of planting soil mix? So we had none of that in the original plan?”
Burns said he can’t tell how the contractor “discincluded” things from the contract, but the contractor, under the original plan, was required to provide some sort of horticultural soil backfill.
Hansen said he was looking into the change order, and believed $117,000 to go from one tree to another was “outrageous.”
He said an expert he talked to said all but one tree – the London plane tree – were good for downtown streetscapes.
Burns said while the London plane tree is a large tree, it will grow quickly above the level of the roadway. As the tree grows up, the lower branches grow too.
“There’s always a level of care required,” Burns said about routine maintenance of the trees.
Hansen said a lot of larger trees can be purchased at discounts between $250 and $350 per tree, due to the housing market being down.
He said the trees proposed, of calibers between four-and-a-half and five inches, are more susceptible to shock during transplant.
“If we went to something smaller, like three or three-and-a-half inch tree, it would be less susceptible to shock,” Hansen said.
Burns said the important part of transplanting any tree is the level of care it receives from the point it goes into the ground until which it is established.
“The reason we stick to trees of this size is a streetscape like Lansdale’s, whether it’s in the dense downtown or along Broad Street or farther out Main Street, if you put in smaller trees they will be lost and you will never even know they are there,” Burns said. “A good example of that is if you were to drive through Hatfield. You don’t even know the smaller trees are there unless you’re looking for them.”
Hansen continued to argue the installation of larger trees, stating that the experts told him within two years the smaller trees will be as big as the large ones the borough wants to put in.
Burns said the speed of growth of a tree depends on the conditions it is put in.
“If I were in the role of inspector on the project, I’d be making sure trees are properly sized and maintained in an adequate fashion to ensure those things occur,” he said.
DiGregorio said if the borough goes with a two- to three-inch caliber tree, then in a couple years it is going to get bigger and stronger, and ultimately cut down on the cost for the trees they will pay for.
Riccio cautioned DiGregorio that the borough is under regulations of PennDOT.
Ziegler said the borough is restricted by the way that PennDOT would handle the change order and the way it would price it out.
“While I did not get a firm price from the contractor as far as going to a smaller tree, the work involved in planting the tree is basically the same,” Ziegler said. “The savings on that, he estimated verbally, would be $15,000 to $17,000.”
He said the whole project is overseen by PennDOT and the borough has to “play by their rules.”
Ziegler said the price will go up if council tables the motion.
“The contractor is going to want to tag these trees ASAP and any sort of delay to that process then he’s going to come back and say that that price isn’t good and go higher,” he said. “My inclination on this is there’s not a chance in the world he’s going to go lower.”
Council president Matt West said there are complexities of having a contractor who is awarded a contract.
“You can’t just go and say, ‘Well, look I found on eBay that you can buy a similar caliber tree for $5.’ You can’t do it so you’re locked in.”
DiGregorio argued that trees are locked in from the past and now things are getting changed around.
“We can actually save money if this is a change by ordering a smaller tree instead of a big tree and saving taxpayers a lot of money,” he said.
Riccio said that wasn’t the case.
Burns added that trees are dug once a year, usually in the spring, so that means there are a limited number of trees in the spring. As you move forward in the year, that number goes down.
“As they year progresses, the higher quality trees become more difficult to find,” he said.
Riccio said the irony of this whole situation is as a council, they have been told they don’t care about trees.
“Unfortunately, if the right trees were chosen in the first trees, none of us would go through this,” Riccio said. “At the end of the day what is shown is we’re taken a great effort to do the right thing. Of course, we don’t want to spend any more than we have to, that’s why we’ve been doing this.”
Riccio told Hansen if he wants to politically vote no because he thinks he is saving taxpayer money, do it.
“We have tried very hard to do this the right way,” he said.
“This is not political,” DiGregorio said. “I did my own research. I talked to people about what is going on.”
“The only one who talks about politics up here, Mr. Riccio, is you,” said Hansen.
The votes were taken as described above, and $117,000 later, new trees are set for Main Street.
“I would like to say to Nate Burns, thank you for coming out to educate us,” said councilman Paul Clemente. “Thank you for being on the planning commission because it’s caliber of people like you that our town can benefit.”