Number of trees at root of MD 500 project complaint

Recently, the SHA announced that it reduced the number of trees in the initial proposal for the MD 500 project by 59 percent, leaving 59 proposed new trees. Photo by Krissi Humbard

By LINDSAY MYERS — In the April Print Edition of the Hyattsville Life & Times a local resident submitted a Letter to the Editor lamenting his dismay that the State Highway Administration (SHA) agreed to reduce the number of trees proposed for the MD 500 (Queens Chapel Road) construction project by 59 percent.

The Hyattsville Life & Times fact-checked this claim and found in the discovery process that the roots of the controversy are deep and far reaching.

As far as the HL&T can verify, the story goes like this:  

In 2017, the SHA proposed planting 144 trees in the new Queens Chapel Road median as part of the MD 500 project. At the March and April Hyattsville Corridor Community (HCC) meetings, the SHA announced that it reduced the number of trees in the initial proposal by 59 percent, leaving 59 proposed new trees. It is not clear whether the HCC initially asked for the reduction or whether the SHA made the decision itself, but both organizations cite “safety issues” as the impetus for the decision, specifically the visibility of oncoming traffic at intersections.

“The trees will be located in the center of the median,” said Christopher Bishop, the SHA Sr. District 3 Community and Government Liaison for Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, “so that they will not impede the sight distance of oncoming traffic at intersections and to provide sight line clearance for roadway signage.”

Yvette Shaw, the founder and coordinator of HCC, said “HCC just wants to make sure safety is the main consideration (i.e. visibility) even as far as the year 2040 when the trees are full grown … Queens Chapel Road has been the scene of quite a number of accidents … Trees are like shoes; if they don’t fit or make you feel comfortable, try another size.”

Paul Steinkoenig, a member of Hyattsville Corridor Community and the writer of the initial Letter to the Editor, challenged the SHA decision and brought the issue to the attention of the wider Hyattsville community. He reports that the SHA made the decision to reduce the number of trees based on comments from “a few residents [who] raised comments about not liking trees for various reasons.” Steinkoenig said he primarily opposes the 59 percent reduction, however, on the grounds that Hyattsville is a certified member of Tree City USA. Although the Tree City USA organization does not mandate a certain number of trees for membership, it does require certified cities to budget at least $2 per capita annually for their tree canopies. It also requires each certified city to maintain a “Tree Board” or department so that someone is “legally responsible for the care of all trees on city or town-owned property” and that “the public will know who is accountable for decisions that impact community trees” (Tree City USA Standards). Shaw acknowledged that a public announcement had not been made about the initial number of trees or the proposed reduction, though she has been diligent about ensuring the public is aware of monthly HCC meetings.

Although the SHA proposed spacing the new trees in the Queens Chapel Road median 35 feet apart at the April HCC meeting, Steinkoenig proposed reducing the spacing to 25 feet based on the current standard of other medians in the area and his research into the recommended spacing distance between the varieties of trees slated for planting. Steinkoenig said his hope is that by reducing the distance between trees to the recommended standards, the SHA could theoretically plant more trees without compromising safety. It is not clear yet whether 35 feet is mandated by the State of Maryland based on the type of tree planted as the SHA suggested, or whether this number is flexible. The SHA representative at the April HCC meeting said he would check with an SHA arborist.

At the May meeting, the SHA representative announced that the proposed 35 feet distance would remain regardless of species.

“I do not understand this plan at all,” said Steinkoenig. “It seems to me that someone wanted to save a little money and simply reduced the spacing of trees as a way to do so! Yes, I am angry and saddened by this decision.”

For a local issue that has not generated much attention beyond Steinkoenig’s letter, the HL&T spent a tree-mendous amount of time in communication (over 40 emails and/or phone calls) with people affiliated with the project including, Councilmember Edouard Haba (Ward 4), Yvette Shaw of the Hyattsville Corridor Community, two of the MD 500 project engineers, multiple members of the State Highway Administration, and one very angry member of the HCC. Although Hyattsville’s designation as a Tree City does not require the city to pack its medians full of trees — especially at the expense of safety — it does seem to suggest that transparency is as important as visibility.

What do you think about the number of trees that the State Highway Administration has proposed planting in the new medians on Queens Chapel Road? Let us know in this month’s poll.

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