At Greenwich Wetlands, Dissent Continues Over Tree Cutting on Former Rockefeller Land

On Wednesday the Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency held a meeting about 0, 4 & 6, and 8 & 10 Ashton Drive where violations for unauthorized cutting stemmed back to November 9, 2023 when Greenwich Police were called by neighbors at 148 Glenville Rd, where trees were also cut without authorization.

S.E. Minor & Co is the applicant, but the property owners include Governor Ned Lamont and Carrie Vik who are members of the Ashton Drive Association.

A conservation easement spans four of the parcels, including the association’s open space, Lamont parcels, and Vik parcels.

Attorney Marc Kurzman from Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey, introduced himself as personal counsel for the Lamonts, and said he was present to provide assurances regarding compliance with the Agency.

He said the interveners had filed a lawsuit against the Lamonts’ landscaping contractor, and requested a $5 million prejudgement attachment to the contractor’s property.

At a previous meeting, the landscaping company was named as Your Gardening Angel.

“The Lamonts recognize and appreciate the need to protect wetlands and wetlands buffers. They will assume full responsibility for the performance of the restoration work this Agency approves or requires…” Kurzman said.

Tom Heagney, land use attorney for the Lamonts, said after the March hearing, they had hired local landscape architect and former 16-year member of the Wetlands Agency, Matt Popp, to create a comprehensive restoration plan.

Carrie Vik, owner of 8 & 10 Ashton Drive said her family purchased their property from Godfrey Rockefeller in 1988.

“This home had been built by Godfrey Rockefeller with Stillman Rockefeller building the house next door to us, which is now owned by the Blavatniks,” she said, adding that the hill had once been a ski slope with a rope tow that the Rockefellers created for their children and the pond had been used for skating.

“We have always respected the nature here and felt very honored to be able to enjoy it at the encouragement of the Rockefellers,” she said, adding that she had previously served on the board of the Greenwich Land Trust.

“And as good neighbors we cooperated with them on the maintenance of the pond,” she continued. “Andy and Stillman Rockefeller maintained the roads so that we could all walk the land, and they would clear away fallen trees from the paths so we could cross country ski and walk and run.”

Ms Vik said while she understood that work done had not been permitted, Indian Spring Land Co and Aquarion had done work over the past 10-15 years.

“First it was Indian Spring Land Company who were given permission to do conservation work in the forest. They cleared basically all the underbrush of the entire forest and took down some trees.”

“Then in early 2021, after discussions with Aquarion, who had a water main pipe that came through our property with an easement – that water main was 100 years old and Aquarion asked Ashton Drive, myself and the other property owners here, for a new easement so they could move the pipe,” Ms Vik recalled. “In doing so they cleared all the underbrush, all the bushes, took down many trees on our side of the pond – completely denuding the waterfront.”

She said that as part of that project, the dam at the end of the pond needed to be brought up to state standards. She said the Blavatniks had contracts to buy lots along her side of the pond but with a contingency that work on the dam, which involves heavy equipment, be completed first.

“I have photographs that show it was completely denuded,” Ms Vik said. “There were many other trees taken down. Our side of the lake, for the last 10 to 15 years, has changed dramatically.”

“I believe there has been misrepresentation as to what actually occurred here,” she added.

Rachael Orsi from S.E. Minor & Co shared before and after photos, including photos taken the previous day.

“Everybody knows that pictures speak, in this case, probably more than 1,000 words,” she said. “As you can see the undergrowth is coming back, nice and full and lush.”

Mr. Popp said he had visited the site twice and met with the consultant for the neighbors, Jay Fain, about the restoration plan.

Popp’s observations were that there were no roots removed from trees, making for minimal ground disturbance. He did not notice any ruts or erosion to the pond.

Mr. Fain, who said he had worked with the Rockefeller family properties for over 30 years, said he did his own inventory.

“We found there were vastly more trees removed than were originally identified,” Fain said.

His count included 2-inch trees, whereas S.E. Minor & Co counted trees 6-inches and larger.

Fain said Wetlands regs referred to counting clear cutting trees as small as 2-inches in diameter. Also he said trees had been limbed up to 50 ft.

He said a total of 375 trees had been removed from all the properties, including 148 Glenville Rd.

Recommended Fees / Jay Fain

Mr. Fain said the town had “great latitude” to impose fines for restoration.

“You can view it as a wetlands violation, but looking at it as an ecologist, this is an ecosystem level event,” Fain said.

Mr. Fain described the disturbed area as a riparian forest within the 100 ft buffer of wetlands, and the disturbance as an “ecological perturbation.”

He said he’d met with Mr. Popp, and that they agreed on some things and disagreed on others.

He said the total number of trees 2-inches and larger on all the properties was  375, but that was a conservative number because other stumps might have been hidden under piles of leaves and rocks.

“It’s not a numbers game. It’s what right for the environment,” Fain said.

“We did do a constraints map and mapped the soil, the slopes, areas suitable for planting, and areas unsuitable for planting so constraints are known and areas more suitable should be more more heavily planted with larger trees and areas with steeper slopes or have weather constraints should have smaller bare roots stock.”

The Crux: Invasives

After S.E. Minor & Co shared new photos leafy, green vegetation, Mr. Fain said that reflected the aggressive nature of invasive species.

He said prior to the tree cutting, it was a Beech-Maple-Birch forest, and without a maintenance and management plan invasives would overtake the native plantings.

Mr. Fain said there were restoration nurseries that specialize in native species.

“Native cultivars are far superior,” Fain said. “You need to have at least a five-year maintenance and management plan. You have to at least have the trees get established. You’ll have to get the trees watered. You’ll have to protect it from deer. They’ll have to be protected from invasive species.”

Fred Jacobsen, property manager at 148 Glenville Rd (owned by INCT LLC) – who called in the original complaint to police, also took issue with S.E. Minor & Co’s photos.

Wetlands agency member Bill Galvin questioned the different perspectives.

“I’m curious to know why this disparity in looking at allegedly the same thing,” Galvin asked. “The 375 trees you quote – is that all directly attributable to the violation in November and not subject to previous events?”

Fain said the trees cut in the disturbance areas of the Ashton Drive Association and 148 Glenville Rd were all new.

“I know it’s been six months, but it’s readily discernible that these are fresh cuts.”

Tom Heagney said SE Minor & Co’s had survey crews locate all trees 6-inch or greater.

“Because we don’t view this as a clear-cut operation by any means,” Heagney said. “That’s what we submitted, signed by a licensed surveyor. We stand by the numbers we have filed with the agency.  It’s nowhere near what Mr. Fain is claiming we removed.”

Wetlands Director Beth Evans said that her agency would review Mr. Popp’s proposal and incorporate Mr. Fain’s input along with her staff’s, and recommend a plan  to address the recovery of the precious resources.

“We agree that invasive management – invasive monitoring and control –  is going to be key to the long term success of any long term restoration plan,” Evans said.

At the close of the meeting the public hearing was left open and a subsequent meeting will be scheduled where the public will be able to comment

See also:

Restoration Proposed after “Devastating” Unauthorized Cutting and Wetlands Violations

April 23, 2024