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Town Manager will decide if Amherst trees stay or go

  • A rendering of the South East Street Court project proposed in Amherst by developer Amir Mikhchi. ​COURTESY AMIR MIKHCHI



Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 13, 2019

AMHERST — Amherst’s town manager may be the final arbiter on whether several trees on South East Street, including a large northern catalpa tree, can be removed by a developer planning a mixed-use project.

The Planning Board and Tree Warden Alan Snow have a joint hearing set for Aug. 27 at 7:05 p.m. in Town Room at Town Hall on the fate of the trees Amir Mikhchi hopes to remove in advance of construction the South East Court project at 133-143 South East St.

But town officials have been informed by town attorney Joel Bard of KP Law that, because a protest letter has already been filed by a resident in support of the trees, Town Manager Paul Bockelman will likely have to make the call as to whether any or all of the trees come down.

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said Monday that the scenic roads bylaw, which governs South East Street and several other Amherst streets, requires a joint hearing when public shade trees or stonewalls are to be removed.

Bard wrote in his opinion that the state law concerning removal of shade trees is clear that “the receipt of a protest letter shifts the shade tree decision to the town manager as the town’s executive under the charter.”

As he explains, “the statute refers the decision to either a board of selectmen or mayor, both of which typically are the municipal executive (in the absence of a local charter). Under the Amherst Charter, the council is the legislative body and the manager is the executive.”

The protest letter was written by Molly Turner of Old Town Road, who stated her appreciation for the 100-year-old catalpa and its “majestic beauty,” as well as the other trees.

“They belong to the public and I protest the loss of more green space and the loss of more trees that cannot be replaced,” Turner wrote.

Previously,  the joint hearing was scheduled in April, but no decision was made once Turner’s letter was submitted. Instead, Brestrup said the matter was turned over to the Town Council, which officials had understood to be required to make the final decision.

The correct procedure should have been to hold the hearing and make recommendations, she said.

“We re-advertised the public hearing for Aug. 27 and will have the Planning Board and tree warden declare a decision,” Brestrup said. Unless the letter of protest is rescinded, the final decision will be made by the town manager. 

The Public Shade Tree Committee has unanimously advised Snow to require Mikhchi to keep the catalpa, which measures 42 inches in diameter at breast height, and if that isn’t possible, to have him pay the town the full replacement value of the tree and others to be removed from the site, including a spruce with a 24-inch diameter at breast height, a 22-inch spruce, a 14-inch crabapple and a 6-inch hickory or elm.

Meantime, a Planning Board hearing on Mikhchi’s project, which includes apartments on the upper floors and commercial space on the ground level, will continue after the hearing on the trees. Previously, Mikhchi got approval from the Historical Commission to demolish two rental homes that are currently on the properties.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.