New ones have been planted, though concern persists about future of street trees

by Doug Maine

New trees have been planted in front of the historic Webb and Stevens houses and in front of Old Wethersfield’s main commercial building and Village Pizza just to the north.

Others are in the ground in front of the Board of Education headquarters in the Stilllman Building, at Hartford Avenue and Main Street, adjacent to Town Hall and in front of the Silas Deane Middle School and elsewhere, the result of a joint effort by the Wethersfield Village Improvement Association and the town.

“We had donated $3,000 in matching funds to the town for town trees and we also want people to plant trees on their own property,” said Robert A. Garrey, president of the association.

Millane Nurseries

Millane Nurseries, Wethersfield, CT

To facilitate the latter, the association, working with Millane Nurseries, is inviting homeowners to order trees to fill the bare spots in their yards. The symbolic goal, in the year of the town’s 375th birthday, is to have 375 new trees planted in Wethersfield in 2009.

For several years, there were concerns that the town has been taking down too many trees – especially “street trees” located on the snow shelf between the sidewalk and the curb – without replacing them, leaving bare spots and endangering Wethersfield’s status as a “tree city.” Now, many people have a more positive feeling.

“These weren’t just street trees (that we planted), but there was a controversy over whether planting street trees was appropriate,” Mr. Garrey said. The plantings are achieving the goal of putting trees in locations where they fill empty spaces and gaps in the tree line or otherwise improve the landscape.

“In general, there are a lot of places on streets to plant trees,” he said, but he noted that most of the $6,000 in town and association’s funds had been spent. “Having money to plant (more) trees is going to difficult in the current climate.”

Members of the Town Council have been supportive of group’s tree initiative, he said.

At a special meeting of the council’s infrastructure and public works subcommittee, the tree warden was given direction to work with the Shade Tree Commission and start planting trees, not just big trees but small trees as well, Mayor Andrew Adil said.

Street trees

Downtown Wethersfield

“We still want to be road tree city USA,” said Councilor Martin Walsh, who chairs the subcommittee. “We think the trees add a lot to our environment, make Wethersfield a more inviting town … I guess we’ve had some instances of damaged trees and trees in conflict with power lines.”

“We’re really trying to improve our streetscape,” said Councilor Matthew Forrest. “You want the town of Wethersfield to look good and be environmentally thoughtful and friendly.”

Instead of viewing trees as a liability, or an accident waiting to happen, he said the town should see them as assets. Trees reduce pollution and tree-lined streets calm traffic and enhance property values.

Though the tree budget is always an issue, setting priorities and getting donations would help, he said.

“As I drive down the streets, I see more bare spots than I remember in the past. Whether that’s quantifiable I don’t know,” Councilor Forrest said. “Has it gotten to a critical stage? I don’t think so.”

Pros and cons

In a letter to Shade Tree Commission Chairman Bruce Graver last August, Town Manager Bonnie Therrien asked that the commission address concerns about the loss of trees by developing a street and park tree replacement plan, a tree felling policy that protects trees from removal to the greatest extent possible.

In response, Mr. Graver said that the commission has received more requests for tree removals than for plantings and many of those removal requests were denied. He noted that annual requests for funding for a tree inventory have not been granted.

Broad Street Green, downtown Wethersfield

Broad Street Green, downtown Wethersfield

“A tree should not necessarily be planted when a tree is removed. There are arboricultural, engineering and safety issues to be considered. Right tree, right location, right conditions should be the rule,” Mr. Graver wrote.

“In Wethersfield, we are dealing with an aging urban forest that has been neglected for far too many years. Many trees are at the end of their life span and unless they are taken down, they will come down by themselves. Public (health), safety and welfare are major factors in removing at risk trees … To keep our present and future trees well maintained and healthy it will require financial commitment, good reliable equipment and adequate trained manpower.”

Some of the recent concern about the loss of trees has centered on Wolcott Hill Road, Ms. Therrien said. “Wolcott Hill’s such a shade tree street that when a few come down, you really notice it.”

“We have a limited budget and sometimes trees are place where they shouldn’t have been placed,“ too close to utility wires. Many of the trees taken down were diseased and dying. In some cases, trees that can’t handle pollution have been placed alongside busy roads, Ms. Therrien said. In planning for improvements to the Silas Deane Highway, the town has learned that only certain trees would survive and thrive if they were next to the highway.

The cost of maintaining or replacing a mature tree can run into the thousands of dollars, Ms. Therrien said.

In the case of Nott Street, Mr. Garrey said a number of homeowners who wanted to plant trees in front of their homes were told they would have to get permission from the state Department of Transportation, because it is considered a state highway.

The town owns the trees located in the “snow shelf,” between the sidewalk and the street, so that the tree commission’s permission is required for planting trees there.

Noting that the width of the snow shelf can vary substantially, he said he would like to see “a more thoughtful approach, not just a blanket statement that street trees are evil.”

At the town’s Green Summit II, held last November, resident and tree advocate Linda Case distributed a flyer headlined “An end to tree-lined streets?” Going back to 2003-04, the types, locations and numbers of trees removed were listed inside a drawing of a big tree stump.

The flyer urged residents to “Tell our council we want street trees. Urge your neighbors to plant trees in the private yards. Insist that the public stock be well-tended. This approach costs little. What we have now is essentially a policy of non-maintenance. In part, this is what causes the need for rampant cut-downs. That approach costs money.”

In an e-mail, Ms. Case said, “quite naturally people tend to be focused on getting by day to day. And it is easy to ignore the fact that the entire streetscape has been drastically compromised, little by little.” Among the factors she cited were the “rampant cut downs of mature trees. No replacement. No overall plan for planting.”

The Great Wethersfield Elm

The Great Wethersfield Elm

Issue comes to head

Many residents’ concern about the removal of street trees came to a head late last year when they noticed three trees in the snow shelf along Hartford Avenue, just east of Sacred Heart Church, had been tagged for removal.

The reason was a drainage project that was planned to address a long-term problem with the flooding of residential basements and the pooling of water on church property.

“The contract that we let out to bid was going to (have pipes installed) off the road and under the snow shelf,” said Town Engineer Mike Turner. That would have necessitated taking down all the trees, and town Tree Warden John Lepper agreed, so notices were posted on the trees.

“All of a sudden we saw three lovely trees marked for condemnation. I immediately wrote a letter of protest to the town manager,” said Alison Tajarian, a long-time resident who headed, with her husband, the town’s tree program back in 1984, “when it was very casual.”

A formal appeal was submitted, requiring the commission to hold a hearing. Though Ms. Therrien put a temporary freeze on tree removals, town crews unaware of the appeal took down the largest and easternmost of the three trees.

Though that was not supposed to happen, “people said that it was good we did because it was hollow,” Ms. Therrien said.

The commission granted the residents’ appeal, and the two remaining trees were spared, with the town agreeing to skirt the trees with the piping, so as, ideally, not to disturb their root systems. “It doesn’t look like the work we did will damage the trees,” Mr. Turner said.

“This was a little bit of optimism for those of us who are fighting for shade trees,” Ms. Tajarian said.

Overall, she said the picture is not good. “We have certainly lost over the past 50 or 60 years a tremendous amount of trees,” she said. “People have simply not been aware of the removals … I do think we should continue to protest when we see trees that are marked for destruction.”

Planting new street trees is still a challenge. “In the past couple of years, homeowners have planted trees (in the snow shelf) in front of their homes and were ordered to take them out,” she said.

Another problem is that the town’s tree program is focused on parks and schoolyards. “There has really been no emphasis on streets,” Ms. Tajarian said.

To save money when it buys trees, the town should be able to buy smaller tries, which need less water and suffer less stress when they are transplanted, she said.

Ms. Tajarian has established a blog at: http:treesforwethersfield.wordpress.com

Chester Bulkley House, 1830, downtown Wethersfield

Chester Bulkley House, 1830, downtown Wethersfield

Staying green

The town’s tree warden, Mr. Lepper, who by state statute is responsible for all trees on town-owned property, said the tree picture is not as dismal as some people paint.

“Over the last five years, we’ve removed 645 trees, which is not a lot overall when you consider that 200 were taken by the MDC for a sewer project,” he said.

At the same time, he said the town has planted 950 trees and shrubs.

“It gives us no great pleasure taking down trees,” he said, citing, for example, a 150-year-old tree at State Street and Hartford Avenue by the Solomon Welles House. “It was one of the trees that were planted when the prison was built and that was the last one of them, and age took its toll.”

Trees have to come down for various reasons. “Basically, we’ve got a lot of old trees in town and for many years, decades in fact, very little was done to take care of them,” Mr. Lepper said.

“The main thing that we have to think about is public health and welfare … A lot of our critics see only the beauty in trees, and beauty is only secondary.”  His job is to prevent property damage or the loss of life. “I don’t want it on my watch for anybody get hurt,” he said.

Overall, “more time and money needs to be spent and dedicated to tree care. Putting more trees in the ground doesn’t necessarily solve the problem if the trees aren’t taken care of,” he said.

“Trees should really be inspected every five years,” he said, “You’re looking for insect problems, defective growth, animal damage, weed whacker damage to roots.” Some trees may need to be injected to fend off an infestation.

“The reason we can’t do that is we just don’t have the man-hours,” with a tree crew of only three and 105 miles of roads, plus parks, schoolyards and other town-owned open space,” Mr. Lepper said.

“For the number of trees and the space we have to cover, we actually should have two crews. We don’t really have one,“ he said.

Hale-Newson House, 1725

Hale-Newson House, 1725

“Basically, what the town needs, and we put it in the budget year after year, is a good inventory of the trees that the town has,” including their type, condition and worth, which would show where there are spaces for planting trees.

One of his goals has been to storm-proof roads, by pruning or removing trees that could come down on power lines or were big enough to block a street. “As a result, we’ve had only one power outage as a result of trees in the past two years. We’ve had two property-damage claims,” Mr. Lepper said last year.

That program involved trees on town-owned property, such as the snow shelves, but homeowners were going to be notified about trees that fall into that category as well. They cannot be compelled to take them down, he said, though their liability is high.

Last spring, he said the town had to take down a tree that had been planted in the 1930s that was too close to a hydrant, so that its roots had wrapped around the hydrant.

In his 10 years on the shade tree commission and then more than six years as tree warden, Mr. Lepper said, ”we’ve had more requests for tree removal than for tree plantings.” If the problem is simply that a homeowner doesn’t like to rake the leaves, such requests can be denied.

Another problem for local trees is that “people don’t respect them,” and run into them with lawnmowers, spray lawn chemicals on them and tack signs on them.

“The main thing is the bark of the tree should not be covered,” Mr. Lepper said.

And “volcano mulching,” in which stones and wood chips are used to cover the base of a tree, can have calamitous consequences. In a storm, trees treated that way can shear-off at ground level because their bases have rotted out. Also, if the mulch keeps the bottom of the tree wet, insects can hasten its demise, he said.

“Tree-care costs money and I think that’s one of the reasons people want to push trees off onto town property,” Mr. Lepper said.

“Planting street trees is really putting them in a hostile environment … It’s a wonder they make it at all,” he said, adding that some types of trees are better in such an environment than others. Locust trees are considered pretty good street trees, but sugar maples are susceptible to salt damage from the road.

The Zelkova is a pretty good street tree and Bald Cypress trees have been recommended, though he hasn’t seen them used anywhere as street trees, he said. Red maples seem to do pretty well anywhere, though with new Asian longhorn beetles moving close to this area, “you begin to wonder about the maple trees.”

Mr. Lepper’s position with the town is part time, but actually should be at least half time, given his increasing work load. That’s not likely to change given the town’s difficult struggles to limit spending during a global economic recession.

“There’s a lot to the world of trees. People just take them for granted, and you can’t,” he said.

Plantings on Broad Street

Plantings on Broad Street

In closing….

Plant a tree in your yard

The Wethersfield Village Improvement Association is inviting homeowners to plant trees in their yards in celebration of the town’s 375th birthday. The symbolic goal of the campaign is to have 375 new trees planted in Wethersfield this year.

Working with Millane Nurseries, the association will soon be putting out a list of the types of trees available with their prices. Once a resident orders a tree and identifies its location, the group will place a tree sign specially created by Oldham Studios in the location of the future trees.

Interested persons can call association president Rob Garrey at 257-9774.

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