About 80 acres in the Somerton neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia have been conspicuously left out of Philadelphia City Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson’s legislation to improve the city’s tree canopy protections, which passed City Council on June 16, 2022. The Somerton Civic Association is lobbying to change that.
Northeast Avenue comes to a tree-shaded end in between a suburban-style neighborhood to the northwest and railroad tracks to the southeast, the latter marking the edge of Roosevelt Boulevard’s commercial and industrial corridor. The trees continue to Byberry Road, covering an 80-acre trapezoid mostly made up of two parcels of land held by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, listed at 11430 and 11450 Northeast Avenue.
Farmed for centuries, the land was used for the Philadelphia County Fair in the early 1900s. According to Chris Bordelon, a member of the Somerton Civic Association executive board who has been working to preserve the land, plans to build a road through it kept it from being developed like the surrounding agricultural land, and the trees kept growing as the decades rolled by without the road being built. Although the land is posted “no trespassing,” neighbors sometimes walk on the rough trails that wind through the woods.
“I think it’s the biggest wooded parcel of land in the city not preserved from development,” Bordelon says. The civic association has been trying to change that.
The group fought off a warehouse plan proposed by their district’s City councilmember, Brian O’Neill, in 2018, and since then they have been looking for a mechanism to preserve the forest, so far with no success.
Among other measures, Gilmore Richardson’s bill stiffens requirements to replace heritage trees and establishes a fee, based on the number of trees on the site, that developers can pay for cutting down trees that they don’t replace. However, the bill specifically caps the fee at 5% of the total value of the site for land like the tract in Somerton. The bill also exempts these industrial sites from requirements to seek special approval to cut down heritage trees (large individual trees of native species).
According to Eliza Alford, policy director for Councilmember Gilmore Richardson, the fee cap is intended to avoid developers going to the Zoning Board of Adjustment to seek variances to skip the fees entirely: “The fee cap for industrial zoned properties recognizes that some of these sites have been long abandoned and wooded over, and paying on a DBH [diameter at breast height, a standard method of measuring tree size] inch basis for many of these properties would have likely led many to seek variances and avoid the in-lieu payment altogether.”
Bordelon submitted testimony criticizing the bill at a June 15, 2022 council hearing on the bill. “The loopholes are written in confusing legerdemain, buried there presumably so that the people affected will have difficulty understanding. There’s no valid justification for it, only greed and a lack of care about people and the environment they live in.”
Bordelon, who served on the Urban Forest Strategic Plan Community Voices Committee that provided input regarding the Philly Tree Plan, pointed out that exempting tracts of land like the one in Somerton undercuts the purpose of tree protections. “Those loophole provisions should not be in this bill. They defeat its purpose,” he said in his testimony. “This bill’s loophole provisions would cut neighbors there out of a development process that they should be a part of, and would let a developer off without paying for the enormous damage caused.”