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Conservancy: Retirement uproots tree protection

December 4, 2018

GREENWICH — When a contractor ripped out a hedge of tall bushes on Hamilton Avenue School grounds recently, the foliage came out even though a neighbor had objected in time for a hearing to be set up to potentially save the greenery.

But the neighbor’s emails were not received and a hearing did not happen, according to staff in the Department of Parks and Recreation Trees Division.

This is the first time the town tree removal process has not worked in 11 years, members of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy said. They attribute the break down to the retirement of Bruce Spaman as tree warden, and say it highlights the need for the town to replace him quickly, and with a candidate equally committed to listening to residents and protecting trees.

“What happened is that the process broke down,” Conservancy Executive Director JoAnn Messina said. “Clearly someone sent in a protest, and that should immediately make a hearing happen. ... The fact that she said she didn’t get a response is really interesting because they always respond.”

Greenwich has not had a tree warden since September, when Spaman retired. He still works for the Trees Division twice a week as a consultant, and leaves a legacy of respecting objections from residents who’ve stepped up to defend neighborhood trees tagged for removal.

“Historically, statewide, Bruce posted more trees in town than most other tree wardens, which is excellent,” Messina said. “He gave more of an opportunity for citizenry to speak to trees coming down.”

The future, however, is more uncertain, Messina said.

“We don’t know who and what type of person will be taking this position,” she said. “Will they be focused on trees as they should be?”

The town will have problems if the position remains vacant for long, or if it selects someone who is not committed to preserving trees, Messina warned.

Spaman’s departure has opened a communication gap between the public and the Trees Division that the conservancy is willing to fill, Messina said.

“For right now, we’ll do whatever we can to respond to citizens’ concern about trees being taken down, whether by the town, or a utility company,” she said. “We go to bat for our trees.”

‘Unsafe’ trees

The town tree warden is responsible for all trees on public property, and must approve all tree removals. Before a tree can be removed, however, the warden must post signs inviting public objection for 10 days. Objections automatically trigger a public hearing. Officials from the Tree Division then decide the tree’s fate.

If no written objections are received, trees come down. Should a tree pose a safety hazard, the warden can issue a permit allowing the tree to be taken down.

In the recent Hamilton Avenue case, the Pecora Bros., a contractor based in Byram, requested permission to clear some of the limbs that hung over a property where Pecora is building 10 one-bedroom apartments, three of which are set aside for people who qualify for affordable housing, co-owner Sylvester Pecora said.

The particular greenery in question, arborvitae, cannot be trimmed back, however.

“You trim an arborvitae and it’s bald,” Messina said.

Instead, the town determined the trees should be removed due to safety concerns, Deputy Tree Warden Steve Gospodinoff said.

“When I inspected the area I became very concerned for the safety of the children that may be playing in the playground,” Gospodinoff said. “These types of trees are perfect for someone with ill intent to hide in.”

Greenwich does not have a policy forbidding the planting of arborvitae on school grounds, but there have been discussions about no longer planting thick evergreens because people can hide in them, Messina said.

“I don’t know how real that is, but it has been stated that people don’t want evergreens on school property,” Messina said. “It’s been discussion since the recent violence on school property, people think of whatever they can think of to make it safer.”

Greenwich Public Schools staff did not initiate a request to remove or issue any concerns about the trees, said Kim Eves, director of communications for Greenwich Public Schools.

Gospodinoff posted the trees on Oct. 24. Trees are posted for 10 days, during which time any community member who objects must do so in writing.

A neighbor sent emails to Spaman on Oct. 29, Oct. 30 and Oct. 31, according to the date and time stamps on the emails. The neighbor declined to comment for this report.

Spaman said he didn’t see any written objections within the 10-day period. Gospodinoff also said he did not receive any emails objecting to the removal of the posted trees.

“I think everything was done above board,” Spaman said. “It was not done in the dark of night. It was properly posted and there were no objections.”

The tree conservancy tries to help in situations like these, Messina said.

“If people don’t hear back, they ask me, I’ll go through my avenue, that’s part of what we do,” Messina said.

Still, members defend large deciduous trees — those that lose their leaves in the fall — more fiercely than they do arborvitae. They also avoid planting such trees, Messina said.

Arborvitae, and evergreen trees in general, do not provide the same environmental and health benefits that deciduous trees do.

The root systems of deciduous trees are deeper than those of evergreens and are more effective at mitigating the effects of erosion and flooding, Messina said. The leaves of deciduous trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen more efficiently than evergreen trees do, as well.

On Nov. 9, Gospodinoff issued a permit allowing Pecora to pay for the trees’ removal, according to a copy of the permit Pecora supplied. The permit obligated Pecora to replant new trees, in accordance with a town policy that requires new trees to be replanted one-for-one on town property whenever a tree on public land is taken down.

Pecora planted six ornamental cherry trees, but Messina said at least three more need to be planted, per a conversation with the Trees Division.

If the town does not replant, then the conservancy will, she said.

The loss of the arborvitae has not caused much outcry in the neighborhood. Resident Annie King on Monday said the overgrown bushes concealed illicit activity as much as they provided shade.

The arborvitae used to conceal people smoking marijuana, King said. Sometimes, she would find condom wrappers there.

“They’re planting new trees,” she said. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be better and cleaner than it was.”

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com

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