It’s easy this time of year to be awed by the lushness and beauty of West Chester’s trees. Early spring’s new buds give way to a leafy green canopy and showers of petals fall to the ground like the remnants of a pale pink snowstorm. Photographers – professionals and amateurs alike – do their best to capture the moment. Their digital odes are scattered about on social media.
It’s also easy to take this moment for granted, to chalk it up as an inevitable rite of spring. However, as robust as it may seem right now, West Chester’s tree canopy is actually in severe decline. The West Chester Tree Commission estimates the borough’s canopy is less than half of what it should be.
“We are losing a lot of our big old trees,” said Tree Commission Chair Jeff Bietel. “The loss of just a couple of these enormous trees is huge. You would have to plant hundreds of those little trees to make up the loss.”
According to the Tree Commission’s annual report, 200 newly planted small trees, think the trees the Borough plants along the streets, would be needed to offset the loss of just one 30” caliper tree. For perspective, just one of the trees cut down at the Burger King property measured 8’ across. In the whole of last year, the Borough planted 105 street trees.
The good and the bad of that number is that street trees make up only 10 percent of the borough’s trees; 90 percent lie on private property.
Kora Stahl, who lives with her husband, at the old Butler property on W. Miner St. often witnesses people stopping to take pictures of the property’s 100-year-old cherry trees. They are the same as those that line the streets of Washington, D.C. “Each Congressman was given two trees. [Representative] Thomas Butler planted his two on his property. It’s wonderful,” she said of the attention they get.
Rewarding, yes. Easy, no.
Each spring Cora and her husband spend hundreds of dollars on fertilizers and care for those trees and that’s when they are healthy. Branch removal on a large tree can run into the thousands. Removal even more than that.
“You know how much these trees add to our lives?” she asked as she worries about the state of the borough’s trees. “I don’t think there’s an appreciation [of the trees]. At least not enough.”
While the short-term costs can hurt in the moment, it’s best not to lose sight of the big picture which can add up in real dollars. According to the Arbor Day Foundation, having a large tree on your property can increase the value from anywhere from 3 to 15 percent. In West Chester, that’s an increase of between $17,041 and $85,206 on the average home. In addition, those with a heritage tree, as defined by the Borough as a tree with a diameter of 24” or greater, or those that plant a new street tree on their property will receive a $50 credit against their Stream Protection Fee each year. Seeing trees routinely last, at least 50 years, that’s quite the savings over time.
Trees are a big-picture game
“It’s incremental. You lose one here. You lose one there. That you don’t notice,” said Jeff. “The trees that we are planting now, we are planting not for ourselves. We are planting for our grandchildren. You have to think in generations.”
“What happened at the BK site was a travesty, but the Zoning Code allows them to do it,” said Jeff, who’s seen the community outrage before only to see it die out as time goes on. “You have to be dogged about it to really effect a change.”
He’s hoping the Tree Commission can leverage that moment to strengthen its position in the future.
CHANGES THE TREE COMMISSION WOULD LIKE TO SEE MADE:
Create a catalog of all of the Borough’s trees. One problem the Tree Commission often runs into is the fact that the majority of trees are on private property. By their estimate, about ten percent of the Borough’s trees are in right-of-ways or on private property but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do a better job knowing where the really special trees are located – even those on private property.
“It’s doable,” says Jeff. Although, it will require the Borough to budget some money.
Better collaboration with Public Works. Public Works is always busy and their time is finite. In the past hard infrastructure items, think road paving and maintenance, have taken priority over things like tree planting and maintenance but Jeff would like to see this balance shift.
“Trees are a soft infrastructure but they are part of the infrastructure,” says Jeff who is especially pushing for the care of trees once planted. According to the Tree Commission’s report, appropriately 20 percent of the trees planted are lost to vandalism, accidents, and droughts.
More resident education. Jeff believes if residents better understood the benefits created by the tree canopy they would be better prepared to take care of it. “The educational component is huge,” he says. Kora agrees. “If people understood how important trees are, they wouldn’t get upset when they lose their leaves,” she said.
- What to see a bird’s eye view of West Chester’s tree canopy? There is a cool map on the Tree Commission webpage.
- Calculating the value of your trees. There could be an insurance benefit should you have to do maintenance.
- You can find the West Chester tree ordinance here. Westtown and West Goshen also have tree ordinances. East Bradford maintains some tree protections within a section of the code called Natural Features Protection Standards.
Originally published, Apr. 21, 2023
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