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Safety vs. aesthetics Merritt tree-clearing slated for Stamford, Greenwich

February 9, 2019

STAMFORD — A tug of war between safety and aesthetics is about to play out on the Merritt Parkway in Stamford and Greenwich next week.

Starting Monday, the state Department of Transportation will begin cutting down old trees, trim limbs too close to the roadway, and clear out areas 30 feet from the parkway where no guide rails are in place.

State officials say the tree removal is about much-needed maintenance along the parkway, but preservationists are worried the clearing could dramatically change the landscape of the roadway.

Wes Haynes, executive director of the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, said the group has a “complicated” feeling about the tree clearing.

On one side, he recognizes the need to do routine maintenance along the route, but he’s worried there won’t be an effort to plant trees in places where old trees are cut down.

“We’re really unhappy that they’re doing this without having any funding in place for replanting,” he said.

Kevin Nursick, DOT director of communications, said the tree removal is not only a long time coming, but of upmost importance to ensure safety along the tree-lined parkway.

He said more people die of tree-related impacts along the Merritt than on any other limited-access highway in the state.

In March 2018, a 25-year-old New Jersey man was killed after a tree fell on his car between Exits 33 and 31, which is part of the Stamford-Greenwich stretch of the highway. A year before that, a 31-year-old Bronx woman died after she lost control of her car and crashed into a tree on Stamford’s border with New Canaan. In 2017, a 76-year-old New Jersey man died in a rollover crash on the parkway near the Norwalk-Westport town line after striking a large tree.

One of the most publicized deaths on the Merritt was in 2007, when two New York residents were killed by a falling tree on the Merritt Parkway in Westport resulting in a settlement of millions of dollars to the estate of the family.

While many associate the Merritt with rows of tall, shady tree canopies along the route, Nursick said the tree-lined landscape only came about because of the state’s staffing and budgetary gaps over the years.

“There has been a notion that trees are part of the context of the Merritt Parkway, that has only arisen because of deferred maintenance,” he said.

He said the state has “an extraordinary amount of work to catch up on” when it comes to tree maintenance along the route, as staffing and budget shortages have put work on the back burner for years.

Nursick said any tree that is at least four inches in diameter and within 30 feet of the roadway in non-guiderail areas will be cleared, whether in good condition or not, in order to comply with highway standards.

Haynes disagreed, sayingsuch a standard may be ideal for a highway such as Interstate 95, but not for the Merritt.

“This is a parkway and it’s supposed to be trees,” he said.

Nursick said the effort is meant to make the roads safer, while cutting down on closures.

“We are concerned about safety and also concerned about keeping roads open before, during, and after weather events,” Nursick said, referring to traffic delays caused by downed trees.

He added, “We’re going to do this with the most aesthetic care that we can possibly apply.”

The work beginning on Monday will start at the Den Road exit in Stamford and will focus on Greenwich and Stamford. It is expected to end March 8. Lane closures are expected on northbound and southbound lanes between exits 28 and 34.

Northbound lane closures will be between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. and southbound lane closures will be between 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

The tree removal operation will be performed by Distinctive Gardens and Tree Care, LLC.

During the work, Haynes said he’d be out on the parkway every day to watch the project closely.

“We want to make sure that the project is done well,” he said. “We will be watching.”

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com

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