BNN ANALYSES | Plans to down nine trees in central Vilnius spark public outrage

Linas Jegelevičius
An expected downing of trees in central Vilnius has ignited a major firestorm not only in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital but all over the country, infuriating both the public and politicians.
On Wednesday, the 20th of July, at least several hundred people clamored in central Vilnius against a developer’s plans to cut down nine trees – a maple, six chestnuts, a white-leaved maple, and a Caucasian plum tree – on the corner of Basanavičiaus and Mindaugo streets.
The terrace square, which got prominence after a statue portraying the French author Romain Gary was erected, is part of the historic Railway Administration building.
That is where the developer, UAB Dobilo Daigas, aims to build a glass and steel-based structure to enlarge a nearby cafe, swapping the nine old trees with seven plant pots.
Some of the placards in the protest said: “Don’t touch our trees”, “Concrete will not produce oxygen”, “Which destroys the city more: trees or the short-sightedness of the people?”, “They are all worth saving”, “Trees are heritage.”

The participants of the picket say the developer’s insolence is endless and the residents’ cup of patience was already overflowing.

Although the municipality had obligated the company to reach out to the local community and give explanations on its plans in the neighborhood, nobody from it showed up on Wednesday, which just poured more gasoline into the fire.
Addressing the crowd, Valdas Benkunskas, the mayor of Vilnius, emphasised that there is no approval from the municipality for the removal of these trees and there will not be any. However, he admitted that the owners could cut down the trees at any time, as they have no legal protection.

Yet the mayor also assured that the municipality has taken all possible measures to protect the trees –

 it has contacted the Prosecutor’s Office, the Minister of the Environment, and the police.
“As long as the building permit allowing the reconstruction is not contested, and in that building permit all the nine trees are marked as cut down, they have the right to do so. That’s why we turned to the Prosecutor’s Office, asking it to check whether all the procedures for issuing a building permit were legal and whether there was no violation of public interest. Only the Prosecutor’s Office can do this. The prosecutor’s office, seeing violations of public interest, must apply to the court, and the court must revoke the building permit. That is the procedure and we have started it,” the mayor said.
However, he acknowledged that the ticking time is “not on the municipality’s side.”
“We asked the city to review all the cameras that monitor the perimeter. Public order officers will monitor the environment and drive by patrolling, especially at night. If they see that some kind of movement is happening here, they will call the police, call us,” V. Benkunskas promised.
The politician also

appealed to the people living near the trees to monitor the situation, and if they notice any suspicious activity, report it to the police immediately.

“…I am asking the residents here to stay vigilant…Although there is no danger to life and human health, the situation is important. However, we live in a legal state, we have to act legally, but in this case, we have to fix the situation on the basis of public pressure,” the mayor underscored.
He also said that the municipality would send a letter to UAB Dobilo Daigas, enquiring why the presentation about the project was not available to the public.
“They just did not do it. And there is no plan because there simply cannot be one…An official inquiry has been launched in the municipality and those names (who allowed the trees to be cut down) will be brought up, but our main goal now is that the trees stay and live where they are meant to live,” he said.

Amid the public pressure, the Culture Ministry has initiated a motion to recognise the trees as cultural heritage,

thus protecting them as an integral part of the square.
First, on Monday, the 17th of July, Culture Minister Simonas Kairys met with the Cultural Heritage Department head, Vidmantas Bezaras, to discuss the case.
After the meeting, Kairys said he was looking into options to stop the plans and asked the Department “to assess the possibility of listing the square as a valuable feature of the whole building”.
“Another thing to consider is the possibility of interim measures. In fairness, it should be said that the law is not exactly on the side of the public interest,” Kairys told reporters, said.
Previously, although the municipality did not approve the removal of the trees, Dobilo Daigas appealed against this decision in court, which then ruled in favor of the developer.
The developer argued that the trees’ roots were damaging the building’s foundations. The municipality shot back that it was not the case.

“The trees that have been growing here for several decades have rooted in right next to the foundations of the building.

Heritage experts claim that the roots are eroding the building. The trees have also been assessed by our experts. Unfortunately, no matter how much we would like to, we do not have the legal power to protect them,” Gintautas Runovičius, head of the Urban Management and Environmental Protection Division of Vilnius Municipality, was quoted by
The company also rents an adjacent plot of land. The reconstruction of the building is currently under preparation and the permit was granted in June 2021. According to the company, without removing the trees, it would be impossible to carry out the reconstruction.
Amid the scandal, Rasa Budbergytė, Vice-Chairman of the Audit Committee of the Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament, excoriated mayor Valdas Benkunskas for what she called “a stubborn repeating of the arguments of the company, namely that the trees are worthless plants that accidentally grew on the roof.“

“This is a brazen misleading of the public in the middle of the day…

The court only obliged the municipality to substantiate its previous decision not to allow cutting trees. It is a scandalous misunderstanding: instead of doing what it is supposed to do, it waves hands helplessly: cut down and reconstruct!” the MP posted an acrimonious post on her social media.
How trees have become important to many Vilniusans demonstrates the other incident this week. After Tuesday’s storm and torrential rain broke the oldest 300-year-old linden tree in Sapiegų Park in Vilnius, the news of the storm’s devastating effects was shared widely online by the local community and the news made national headlines.