Federal Realty Investment Trust violated Rockville’s tree ordinance when it removed four trees along North Washington Street, a city spokeswoman said Wednesday.
The trees were adjacent to a surface parking lot at Rockville Town Square that will serve the new Dawson’s Market grocery, which is scheduled to open on Saturday. A Dawson's Market sign for the store stood partially obstructed by the trees, which screened the parking lot—and behind the lot, the storefront—from North Washington Street.
Federal Realty, which owns and operates the retail portion of the city’s downtown retail district, submitted a request to the city on Monday to amend the Town Square Forest Conservation Plan in order to remove the trees, Marylou Berg, a city spokeswoman, said in an email to Rockville Patch.
“FRIT indicated that the purpose of the removal was to improve the visibility of the Dawson's Market signage in preparation for the grand opening and to support the ongoing success of the market,” Berg said. “City staff's review of the request was under way when FRIT removed the trees on Sept. 26. The city had not approved the request.”
The removal of the trees is a violation of the city’s zoning ordinance and forest conservation plans and the city plans to respond, she said.
“Staff will also finish the review of the submitted request and consider appropriate corrective action,” she said.
Federal Realty officials did not immediately return a call for comment on Wednesday afternoon.
Reaction to the trees’ removal was swift as word spread on Facebook.
Cindy Cotte Griffiths, a Rockville resident and former editor of the now-defunct Rockville Central blog, broke news of the trees’ removal via a Facebook message on Wednesday that included “before” and “after” photos of the property with and without the trees. (The photos are posted above this article.)
“I know everyone has been bending over backwards to give Dawson's Market exemptions to the sign rules we have here in Rockville,” Griffiths wrote. “Did they get a permit to remove all the trees along North Washington Street last night? I want the Market to be successful, but cutting down the trees so we can see the many signs does not seem appropriate or neighborly.”
“Not cool. I highly doubt that was approved. It violated the tree ordinance, I'm sure,” posted Tracy Pakulniewicz.
Sean Carr took aim at Dawson’s Market’s emphasis on organic food and locally grown produce: “‘Green’ food, but the greenery has got to go – apparently. That's a disgrace.”
“Horrible, now the parking is in full site [sic]... what a shame for those trees,” Laure Lacourly Morsli posted.
“Those were beautiful trees and were starting to do a nice job shading the parking lot and providing oxygen!!,” Carol FosterHall posted on the city’s Facebook page.
Ruth Hanessian, a member of the city’s Sign Review Board called the incident “outrageous.”
Hanessian said it was “infuriating” that Federal Realty knew to apply for a permit to remove the trees, but did not wait for approval of the permit.
The Sign Review Board routinely receives requests to remove trees from in front of signs, Hanessian said.
Hanessian said that, to her knowledge, the board has never approved such a request.
As a “Tree City USA,” Rockville “has never been excited about having the signs more visible than the trees,” she said.
Hanessian, who has owned and operated Animal Exchange at 605 Hungerford Drive for 33 years, said she appreciates business’ need for visible signage. But she questioned the city council’s approval of the store’s extensive sign plan.
“Dawson’s has more signs than any business in the City of Rockville,” she said. “There are actually other businesses in the City of Rockville. There are businesses that have left Town Center because they were not visible.”
Federal Realty and Dawson’s Market officials have defended the exceptions to the city’s sign rules, saying the many signs are necessary due to the store’s location in a less-visible portion of Town Square.
The trees’ removal came a day after Johnny Appleseed Day.