Creative Solutions Urged to Save Mature Linden Tree on West End Ave in Old Greenwich

On Tuesday morning Greenwich’s Tree Warden Dr. Greg Kramer held a tree hearing via Zoom on the fate of a tree he posted for removal at 8 West End Ave in Old Greenwich

The 28-inch diameter Linden tree has an expansive canopy, but the plan to cut it down was initiated by a complaint about how it impedes the sidewalk on a heavily traveled road, considered an “urban connector.”

DPW engineer Jason Kaufman said he received notification of an incident in fall 2019 at which time a person with a disability fell from his wheelchair and injured himself as he attempted to maneuver past the tree.

“That was the first time this tree became an issue,” Kaufman said, adding that this past summer a resident filed an ADA complaint with the office of Human Services, the ADA coordinators for the Town of Greenwich.

Kaufman said per ADA accessibility code, federal law requires 36 inches of clear width along sidewalks.

There is an exception for “pinch point” for things like trees, utility poles and fire hydrants, where it is possible to have 32 inches rather than 36″. Now there is 19″ of sidewalk between the tree and the curb. Most wheelchairs are 24″ wide .

Photo: Leslie Yager

Kaufman said the Dept of Public Works conducted a site visit, took photos and measurements. They looked at the available right-of-way space, property lines lines and explored options to see if there was a away to narrow the road or go around the tree, between the tree and private property.

While there are just 19 inches between the tree and the curb, he said a wheelchair is more than 24-inches wide. The roadway is 24-feet wide, giving 12 ft for each lane of travel – with 12-feet the preferred minimum width for a lane.

Kaufman said the town sought an easement from to move the sidewalk onto the private property of the commercial building at 8 West End Ave, but the owners declined.

According to the Assessor’s office, the owner of the building is “Old Greenwich Professional Building.”

He said that left no other option than to cut down the tree.

During public comment, Jim Blake who has lived on West End Ave across from the tree for 20 years agreed the tree growing through the sidewalk prevented it from ADA compliance, but was also problematic for all foot traffic.

“If anyone is pushing a stroller, walking with their toddlers or just plain walking down the street, it’s dangerous because people step into the road with carriages,” he said.

However, he added the tree appeared healthy and he’d like to see a solution to save it.

Dr. Kramer said there were no other options for the tree.

Susie Baker, a 52-year resident of Old Greenwich, urged the tree warden and the DPW engineer to seek a creative solution like they did to save a mature White Oak at 15 Sunshine Ave.

“I realize this is a difficult location. I’m sorry the commercial property owner isn’t willing to literally give a little,” Baker added said. “But losing such a mature tree that has provided so much shade and beauty, and has been somewhat mitigating in taking up a lot of water in that low area over the years deserves more exploratory solutions.”

She added hat the tree created oxygen and absorbed pollutants.

“It takes up other types of pollutants in the air and that’s the only intersection in town where there is a stoplight and you do get standing traffic. People with strollers have managed it for many years, as well as kids on bicycles.”

Kaufman said West End Ave was different from Sunshine Ave because here is no on street parking or extra Right of Way to use to narrow the roadway and widen the sidewalk.

Monica Prihoda, a longtime Old Greenwich resident, said she was a patient of the doctors in the commercial building and that it was very calming to look out at the tree from the dentist’s chair.

“It would be a tremendous good will gesture toward the village of Old Greenwich,” Prihoda said of the possibility of an easement.

Steph Cowie agreed the Linden tree was a lovely specimen tree, but had to come down.

“This is not just an ADA safety issue, this is for anyone utilizing that sidewalk in any way,” she said. “If someone were to go around the tree with a stroller and were hit in the street, the town would be liable for that. It’s not just for ADA, it’s for any person. Who would ever plant a tree in a sidewalk?”

“The narrative is not that people with disabilities are against trees,” she added.

Mary Hull said people moved to Greenwich knowing here were few sidewalks because it was a “country town.” She said people expected few traffic lights, especially in the village of Old Greenwich, and “trees are crucial to the reasons why you move here.”

“If we cut down every tree that blocks anyone, we will no longer be a country town,” she added.

Alan Gunzburg grew angry. “I want to remind them that here in Greenwich, we follow the law, which says a sidewalk needs to be at least 3 ft wide and in some cases we can go down to 32”.

“A man fell out of his wheelchair and into traffic and you guys are screaming about the beauty of a tree. Shame on you,” he said, raising his voice.

“This is a difficult situation for everybody,” said Ms Prihoda. “It’s not that we put trees before people, but there are good points made by everybody….I am somebody who doesn’t give up on finding a solution.”

Mr. Blake asked if there a way to adjust the road by shifting the double yellow line over?

“It’s not a straight road to begin with,” he said.

“Alan, I’m disappointed that you said, ‘Shame on us,'” Baker said.

“What is the possibility that the town could, by eminent domain, take a little bit of that interior part of the sidewalk and that property, even maybe all along that part of West End Ave, and everyone gets a tax break?” she asked.

Ms Baker’s idea had actually come up in last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting.

“My question to the town attorney is, if we wanted to condemn the property needed for an easement, how long does that process take?” Selectperson Oberlander asked at that meeting.

Town attorney Barbara Schellenberg estimated that could take six months.

Dr. Kramer said the suggestion was interesting, but that he was not an attorney.

Francia Alvarez, the advocacy chair for Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said she’d like to hear a response to the question posted by Mr. Blake, who had suggested taking a little bit from the property across the street to move the road away from the tree and widen the sidewalk.

“Can the central line be moved over and still have enough space for the cars and the tree?” she asked.

Mr. Kaufman said the answer boiled down to money.

“Luckily we had this survey (of the side of West End Ave with the tree) done from a different project, but we’d have to identify property lines on the opposite side of the road,” he said.

“That would incur costs to tax payers,” he added.

That said, there is a also a cost associated with cutting down a mature tree, though that was not mentioned.

Ms Alvarez said by coincidence Monday was the day world leaders vowed to end deforestation in the world by 2030.

“This tree is what we would call part of the ‘edge forest’ or ‘urban forest,'” Alvarez said. “Because they’re on the road, they get more light and grow bigger than a tree in a forest.”

“They can hold more carbon, absorb more water, provide noise reduction, and provide both shade and beauty,” she added.

“Trees play a critical role in climate resilience and absorb remarkable quantities of precipitation – 1400 gallons of storm water per year,” she continued. “”It absorbs heat during the day and given back in the evening.”

Alvarez talked about how the area has a lot of pavement and parking lots, creating a “heat island.”

She listed the health benefits of trees and said it was ironic that the owner of a medical building would not want to keep the tree.

She asked the town to pursue Mr. Blake’s suggestion

“We should be looking at eminent domain. We could easily cut into the bushes. …To take down that tree when eminent domain would save it, or going across the street and moving the center line – it would be an awful thing for Old Greenwich.”

Baker also mentioned how the town found a workaround to save the tree on Sunshine Ave.

“It was really great how everyone came together to find a great solution to save the tree. I believe they can work to find a solution for this tree. This tree should not come down.”

JoAnn Messina, director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said, “This is a tree hearing about keeping or taking down this incredible specimen of a tree. It’s one of just a few there.”

She noted there was not much of a tree canopy in the commercial area, and that it was difficult to plant new ones there due to all the paved surfaces.

“This tree is more important than other trees in that there is so much parking space with no tree cover,” she added. “This tree needs to remain.”

Second, she said, there is an issue with safety in many areas of town.

“The idea of taking the road out around the tree makes a lot of sense. Roads should not be straight in that speed occurs more often when there’s a straight road. Having a curve around the tree makes so much sense.”

Cheryl Dunson, also from the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, asked if the road could be slightly less than 12-feet wide.

“Must we have travel lanes the same width as I95? It’s an urban collector, but certainly not with the amount of traffic as I95. Can we reduce the lane to 11-1/2 ft? You’d still be within a desirable width. And we’d be able to extend the sidewalk. I’d urge that we take a look at the roadway and see if there’s a solution to meet the needs of the community in terms of accessibility on the sidewalk and meet the needs of the urban tree canopy.”

Tree Warden, Dr. Kramer said he will prepare his decision withing 3 business days (by Friday, Nov 5) and that per state statute, anyone aggrieved by the decision may appeal the decision to state superior court.