HINGHAM — A local lawyer is working on a citizen’s petition for this year’s town meeting warrant she said would protect Hingham’s tree coverage and help guard the town against the impact of climate change.

“I think this is a time where we’re in a climate crisis, and we can start doing small things to help improve the situation and learn from what we’re doing,” Priya Howell told the board of selectmen last week.

Howell is the leading proponent of a citizen’s petition to create a Tree Preservation Bylaw in the town. Currently, she said, town laws only protect trees on private property if they are near public roads and in or near “resource areas,” like wetlands.

“The gaps in what we have currently, is that if you’re undertaking construction, and you’re not in a resource area or buffer zone, and you don’t trigger site plan review or subdivision requirements, then you can pretty much do what you want,” she said.

What would change?

The proposed bylaw would require private property owners to replace healthy, native trees of 6 inches in diameter or more that are removed during big construction projects. Construction projects that involve building a structure on a vacant lot, expanding the footprint of a building by 20 percent or more or demolishing a structure of 250 square feet or more would all fall within the bylaw.

If property owners choose not to replace removed trees or do not have space to do so, they would be required to pay into a town tree fund. The fund would then be used to plant and maintain trees elsewhere in Hingham.

The default required payment into the tree fund would change depending on the size of the tree.

For trees under 25 inches in diameter, owners would have to pay $150 per inch into the fund. For trees with diameters between 26 to 50 inches, owners would pay $150 per inch for the first 25 inches, then $250 per inch after that.

Howell said the payments to the tree fund would be meant to make homeowners think twice before cutting down trees on their property to make way for new construction. And, it would place the cost of replacing downed trees on the property owners choosing to remove them and profiting from the construction, rather than on taxpayers as a whole.

“People need to pause and say, ‘is it worth it?’ And I appreciate you’re really balancing the public interest versus private property rights,” said selectmen Joseph Fisher.

The benefits

Preserving trees would decrease the town’s energy use by providing shade and lessening the need for air conditioning, Howell said. Trees also consume carbon from the atmosphere, a main driver of climate change.

The bylaw would help offset potential damage to the area’s air quality caused by the Weymouth compressor station, she said, by helping the town save money for future green projects. Opponents to the natural gas compressor station being constructed near the Fore River Bridge say the project would emit unhealthy levels of pollutants into the air.

“If we build up resources now, it will help us consider more innovative and large-scale projects in the future,” said Howell.

Unanswered questions

During the selectmen meeting, board members agreed with the need to preserve trees in the town, but raised concerns that the proposed bylaw had not been brought before several other town bodies, including the conservation commission and the advisory commission.

“Hingham voters want to know that the tires have been kicked on this… My concern is, if this goes to town meeting now, there are enough unanswered questions that I’m afraid town meeting would say no for the wrong reasons,” said selectmen Mary Power.

Fisher echoed Power’s concerns. He also said he was concerned by Howell suggesting the town start with a bylaw covering trees of six inches in diameter or more, then potentially change the law later.

Howell said towns that have enacted similar bylaws, like Concord, have revised the law once already in place if they find too many trees are triggering the bylaw, or too few. It would be best to put a tree preservation bylaw in place now and refine it later if need be, she said.

“Right now, we don’t have any protections for trees during construction,” she said. “Every year or two years that we wait, more and more trees are lost to development.”

Howell presented the bylaw to the advisory committee last Thursday, and said some members thought it would be best to wait to enact the bylaw until everyone has had more time to discuss it. But overall, committee members thought the bylaw is a good idea. The committee is set to vote on the warrant article during their Tuesday night meeting.

Howell said she has talked individually to members of the conservation committee and has canvassed some of her neighbors. People she’s talked to are generally in favor of the bylaw, she said.

“I actually think the votes are there. I think that people want, even people who are developing their property, want to develop their property responsibly,” she said.