The Knoll

Tree Work Insights

The Newton Cemetery & Arboretum welcomes this opportunity to provide context to its request for a waiver of the strict application of the Newton Tree Ordinance to its plan to create needed burial space. The plan involves removing 219 existing trees and replacing them with 632 new trees and new landscaping in the first year, and then adding trees and other plantings in each year thereafter. We are grateful to the Newton Conservators and Green Newton for understanding the points laid out in this statement and offering their support.

A strict application of the Tree Ordinance, however, would require far more trees be planted in the first year, or the payment of a financially infeasible amount into a City tree fund. The Newton Cemetery & Arboretum is seeking greater flexibility from the City in how it meets its obligations under the Ordinance in a way that both meets the goals of the Ordinance of maintaining or expanding the City’s tree canopy while being consistent with prudent horticultural management.

A strict application of the Tree Ordinance would discourage the Newton Cemetery & Arboretum from doing any plantings at any time unless they “counted” under the Ordinance’s requirement of replacing existing trees. That would mean Newton Cemetery & Arboretum would be disincentivized from responsibly growing its overall canopy over time. Rather, the Ordinance compels doing plantings in bulk all at one time, which creates a less healthy canopy and is inconsistent with prudent arboretum management. The waiver sought by the Newton Cemetery & Arboretum would still meet the City’s tree canopy preservation goals but in a manner more consistent with the ongoing tree maintenance obligations of an arboretum, a type of organization fundamentally different from a real estate developer.

Our request for a waiver from the Tree Preservation Ordinance currently under consideration is asking for an extension of the tree re-planting period to allow our recent past and future plantings to be counted against the proposed removals. The ordinance targets other specific situations that are closely tied to the construction of buildings, and Newton Cemetery & Arboretum should not be held to the same criterion. As written, the ordinance forces organizations with a perpetual mission such as ours to consider postponing planting until trees need to be removed instead of managing a responsible, long-range tree planting program that contributes to carbon capture like we do.

Managing our tree planting in response to the tree ordinance would result in inefficient and poor arboretum practice, an unintended consequence of the current ordinance that is designed to discourage developers whose primary motive is profit.  As a non-profit organization serving the residents of Newton, our motivations are quite different. Newton Cemetery & Arboretum has planted 350 new trees since 2017 as part of our ongoing commitment to good urban forestry management. Over the next ten years our tree canopy that already numbers more than 2,600 will see the addition of 1,100 more as part of The Knoll project and ongoing planting within the scope of our Horticultural Master Plan. The net of these plantings will be a diverse selection of 1,500 new trees compared to the monoculture of 219 to be removed. It also demonstrates how the size of the removals in The Knoll (as measured by Diameter Breast Height, or DBH, in accordance with the Ordinance) will be offset over a relatively short period in the timeframe of Newton Cemetery & Arboretum, whose grounds will be maintained in perpetuity.  Trees are but one aspect of a healthy natural environment. The Knoll will include thousands of new shrubs, perennials, annuals, and grasses designed to create an active, balanced ecosystem that attracts pollinators, beneficial predators, birds, and other wildlife all in greater numbers than the present non-diverse parcel does.

Newton Cemetery & Arboretum’s stewardship of the property is exhibited by its listing on the Morton Register of Arboreta as an ArbNet accredited Level II Arboretum. This distinction is awarded to properties that meet rigorous criteria that include keeping a staff of professional arborists, providing public educational programs, and maintaining an arboretum plan and collections policy to ensure appropriate, long-range care of the landscape. In addition to the services offered as an active garden-style cemetery, we provide other significant benefits to the City as an historic site that is also a park open to the public, one that is enjoyed by hundreds of visitors every week at no charge.

While the goals of the ordinance are invaluable for our City in an era of climate change, the specific regulations were designed to address the problem of tree destruction resulting from unconstrained development. It does not make sense that a non-profit organization like ours would be penalized for its well-demonstrated commitment to environmental sustainability when the Newton Cemetery & Arboretum has arguably done more for land stewardship and tree conservation than any other organization in the history of this City.

Newton Cemetery & Arboretum serves a vital purpose in providing a variety of burial space that meets the diverse needs of this multi-cultural, multi-faith community. This is our core mission. The Knoll development will provide options for cremation as well as traditional burials that will serve the diverse cultures and preferences of the thousands of Newton families who depend on our services. As a private organization, Newton Cemetery & Arboretum also serves to meet Newton’s obligations under M.G.L. c. 114, Section 10 which requires the City of Newton “to provide one or more suitable places for the interment of persons dying within its limits”.  Finding the right balance between acreage devoted to grave plots and open space for planting trees is not easily achieved.  Literal application of the Tree Preservation Ordinance makes it difficult for us to meet our goals of maximizing our burial numbers to ensure the long-term financial stability we require while maintaining an appropriate density of tree plantings.

Newton Cemetery & Arboretum has been a crucial community organization and partner since 1855.  We are land-constrained but have a perpetual obligation to this City and its residents who depend on our ability to provide a peaceful place of final repose that is well-maintained as an environmental jewel and graceful public arboretum in perpetuity.  Achieving this goal requires our careful attention to balancing multiple objectives including building a perpetual endowment through the sale of burial space so that the benefits accruing to our natural environment and to the residents of the City do not degrade over time if the endowment is insufficient to maintain the property.  In such a case, future taxpayers of the City would be obligated by state law to assume responsibility for this mission. The Knoll project, and last phases of development, are essential components of our long-range plan, one that greatly benefits the well-being of our community and its residents both living and deceased.

Newton Cemetery & Arboretum is not developing buildings with wanton disregard for the natural environment. Neither are we profiting from the activities we propose in a manner consistent with the penalty payments the ordinance was designed to discourage. Our goals are quite the opposite, and we are hopeful that our commitment to serving as partners in the greater objectives of environmental stewardship while meeting the memorialization needs of our departed family members and neighbors will be understood.  The business and mission of a non-profit cemetery dually functioning as a public park and arboretum is complex. We welcome the opportunity to provide this information and context so that our commitment to the prosperity of Newton’s natural environment – one we share with all city residents – is more clearly understood.

Mary Ann Buras
President, Newton Cemetery & Arboretum

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