'They could've said something': Some Rochester residents throwing shade over new trees

It isn't that Shari Mathews is opposed to trees. On the contrary, she has planted and cared for several on her own property.

She just doesn't like this tree, right there.

This spring the city planted an amur maple sapling on the public lawn in front of her Hollister Street house in Rochester's northeast quadrant. It is trying to close the tree canopy disparity across the city, a goal she approves of, and Hollister Street is a prime target for planting.

But Mathews is blind in her right eye, and when she backs her car out of the driveway the new maple tree is directly on her right side. It makes her afraid she won't see a pedestrian behind her.

A newly planted tree on Hollister Street in northeast Rochester.
A newly planted tree on Hollister Street in northeast Rochester.

What's more, the tree is precisely opposite her Ring doorbell camera, and when the branches sway in the breeze it sends an alert to her phone that someone is at the door. It made the device unusable and so she turned the alerts off; now she worries she'll miss someone stealing from her car or her porch.

Both of those problems could have been avoided if the tree had been planted a few feet north.

The city promised to engage with residents as it embarks on an unprecedented tree-planting spree, but Mathews and several of her neighbors on Hollister Street said they didn't know they were getting trees until the planting crew showed up.

"I told them I didn't want it," Mathews said. "They said, to use their exact words, that 'I'd learn to like it.' "

Mayor Malik Evans has promised his administration will be the leafiest in living memory, with a net increase in the city's street and park tree inventory of about 6,000 trees, or nearly 9%. To hit that aggressive target, the forestry department is moving ahead swiftly with planting — even before beginning the major community engagement process scheduled to begin this fall, or finishing the rewrite of its dated urban forestry master plan.

"We don't have the luxury, nor is it good practice, to just stop (planting)," Commissioner of Environmental Services Rich Perrin said. "We know where we need to put them. ... Let's get through this first round and see what goes well and what we need to improve upon."

Many residents in the northeast were happy to receive trees, while others called and asked if they could get one too, a city spokeswoman said.

Perrin said just 4% of residents declined a tree, meaning they called to object after receiving a postcard saying trees would be planted on their street, possibly in front of their house.

The city said that feedback, positive and negative, will be useful as it begins its major community engagement push in the fall.

"Ultimately, the City is working to accomplish a goal of health and equity," spokeswoman Barbara Pierce wrote in an email. "We recognize we are not going to please everyone on everything."

The Forest in the City: Rochester’s trees are celebrated, but not everyone gets to have their time in the shade

If the example of Hollister Street is representative, the city's communication with residents could be improved upon.

Five residents with newly planted trees in front of their houses answered a knock at their doors. All five said they'd had no contact with anyone about the tree. One was happy to have it; two were ambivalent; and two didn't want it.

"It’s good they’re putting trees all in here," Mathews said. "But they could’ve said something to someone who’s been living here for 30-plus years."

Rochester tree plantings: 'A problem I didn't ask for'

The benefits of trees in cities are numerous and firmly established: lower air temperatures, higher property values, lower levels of crime, better physical and mental health for people living nearby.

A newly planted sapling conveys none of those benefits. First it must grow. And research shows that trees are less likely to reach maturity if residents don't embrace them, metaphorically if not physically.

"Engagement is core to successful tree-planting efforts anywhere," said Monica Tabares, vice president of operations and development at Greening of Detroit, a well-established and well-studied tree-planting nonprofit. "Jumping into a project without engagement will have some negative connotations for residents."

The challenge is most apparent in areas that have suffered from historical disinvestment, like northeast Rochester. Residents there may remember a lack of upkeep from the city, making them wary of new planting initiatives.

In a survey of some of the thousands of people who refused free street trees in Detroit, researcher Christine Carmichael identified a "tension between residents frustrated over ecosystem 'disservices' and urban forestry practitioners focused on the benefits of trees." Those "disservices" include messy leaves or fruit, roots growing into water pipes and a lack of regular trimming.

City of Rochester Department of Environmental Services, Parks Operations & Forestry crew Stefan Gassaway, left, and Darien Cotten plant a tree along the 400 block of Blossom Road in Rochester Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.  The city crew planted six trees along Blossom Rd.
City of Rochester Department of Environmental Services, Parks Operations & Forestry crew Stefan Gassaway, left, and Darien Cotten plant a tree along the 400 block of Blossom Road in Rochester Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. The city crew planted six trees along Blossom Rd.

"It's a problem I didn't ask for," said another Hollister Street resident who gave only her first name, Beverly. She was referring to the newly planted tree in front of her house. "It's going to get big, and I'm going to have to deal with it."

She pointed, too, to a mature tree on the far side of a vacant lot across the street. A large limb was hanging down, something she said has happened several times in recent years.

Once the limb was laying on power lines, she said, endangering the many people who walked beneath it. Beverly said she called the city and Rochester Gas and Electric several times, but that the limb wasn't removed for six months.

Rochester tree plantings: Master plan delayed

In order to fast-track Evans' ambitious tree-planting initiative, the city repeatedly has delayed the revision of its 2012 urban forestry master plan, a document which in theory would help guide the expansion of the canopy.

An initial draft of the redrawn plan was completed in April 2022, just three months into Evans' mayoralty. The city subsequently has promised final versions by the end of 2022 and by July 2023; now the date has been pushed out to June 2024, more than halfway through Evans' term.

"I would rather have a plan that has more informed public input than one that has less," Perrin said. "If we have to defer it, it’s because we’re out planting a ton of trees. ... Right now we're working with those who are willing and want the trees."

The more robust public engagement will begin in September, Perrin said, and include community meetings as well as multiple other ways of connecting with residents. The city has contracted with Highland Planning to lead it.

Tabares, of Detroit, said her organization asks people whether they want a tree in front of their house, and what species they would prefer. There is a youth job-training component related to the planting itself and also a "community ambassador" program to help sell residents on the benefits of trees.

"You really need an understanding of the type of green space residents would like," she said. "Having residents' voices heard is really important to the process."

More: Read about Rochester’s most beloved trees and share your own story

About half of the 1,100 new trees planted in Rochester in the spring went to the relatively tree-less northeast quadrant.

Agustin Cruz, unfortunately, did not get one of them.

He peered up and down Hollister Street from the driveway of the house where he's lived the last 15 years and wondered why the planting crew passed him by.

"If they put one here, I'll thank them and I'll take care of it," he said in Spanish. "But they put one everywhere else and not here. I don't know why. No one said anything."

Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at jmurphy7@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Tree plantings in Rochester NY rub some residents the wrong way