Neighbors Question Motives of Applicant Requesting Town Tree Removal at 5 Brookridge

A hearing on the fate of a town Norway Maple at 5 Brookridge Drive drew numerous residents, the head of the Planning & Zoning Dept, members of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, and the applicant seeking removal of the town tree, Joe Pecora.

Back in November, Pecora who is the contract purchaser, clear cut the property at 5 Brookridge.

Since then he submitted a pre application to the Planning & Zoning Commission for an 8-30g affordable housing development with five stories and 86 units.

On Jan 4 many neighbors spoke to the P&Z commission via Zoom in fierce opposition to the project, with 82 neighbors represented by attorney Mario Coppola. They vowed to return to P&Z with expert witnesses.

At Friday’s tree hearing, Greenwich tree warden Dr. Greg Kramer said comments should be limited to the topic of the Norway Maple and not Pecora’s proposed development.

Still, the proposal loomed large.

Mr. Pecora, represented by land use analyst Michele Cronin, said the tree needed to be removed to accommodate a fire truck’s turning radius.

“The treescape along Brookridge is beautiful, but it’s new,” Pecora said. “It’s not native trees. It continues that way all the way down past 19 Brookridge Drive. You can see the town has allowed most of the trees to be removed and new trees to be planted, for no reason other than what the homeowners would have wanted.”

“We’re looking to remove one for the purpose of life-safety,” he said.

Donald Hamilton of Brookridge Drive said that Mr. Pecora had clearcut over a weekend when town offices were closed, and before a pre application was filed, much less approved.

“We’ll do everything in our power to prevent any part of it being approved,” he said. “This is symbolic of the actions you’ve taken in violation of good sense, good taste and civility. I think you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

Mr. Pecora said the tree removal was requested regardless of whether the project was approved.

Town P&Z director Katie DeLuca recommended the tree warden hold off on a decision until the P&Z commission approved a final site plan.

“The project, as with all projects, requires detail, none of which the P&Z commission or the public has seen at this stage. …Whether or not that driveway is at that location…is to be determined,” DeLuca said.

Mr. Pecora responded by saying, “I am not asking for the tree to be removed specifically for the development. We’re just showing you that whether the development moves forward or not, the fire truck access must be allowed on either one or the other driveway accesses.”

He said fire truck access was impossible via East Putnam Ave because the state said it would not make a decision about removing trees in their right of way until P&Z approved the project.

Besides, he argued that the driveway off Putnam Ave it is a dirt driveway, and a firetruck would sink into the ground there.

Peter Malkin, chair of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said the tree and driveway had existed for a century without issue, and that while the instructions were to evaluate the tree removal without consideration of the affordable housing development, he noted Mr. Pecora had shared a rendering of the proposed development.

Next door neighbor Susan Meyers said for many years the previous residents, the Lees, used the driveway Mr. Pecora described as dirt.

Ann Knox from Brookridge Drive said the applicant had already removed over 20 trees on the property. “We are concerned as a neighborhood that there is increased runoff into neighbors’ homes and down to the brook, an area that already has flooding.”

“Developers’ plans may come and go, but the trees will be gone forever and our community bears that loss,” she continued adding that she too questioned Mr. Pecora’s concerns about a firetruck sinking into the dirt driveway access via Putnam Ave.

“He’s a developer proposing a multi-million dollar development with 86 units. Certainly, he could have access to paving that driveway pretty easily…” Knox said.

Lastly, she asked if Mr. Pecora had standing to go before the tree warden. “He is not the owner of the property yet. He is merely a contract purchaser. We would like to clarify exactly whether he received approval from the current owner.”

Mr. Pecora replied, “Yes, we did. It was on a contractual obligation. According to the prior manager of the current owner he was removed from the Greenwich Tree Conservancy because of allowing us to remove the trees, which he had nothing to do with, which seems a little wrong.”

“Mr. Franco was not removed from the board of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy,” Mr. Malkin said. He volunteered to take a leave of absence while this matter was pending….He was told, or his counsel was told that the developer had in mind a subdivision and two private houses, and there might be the need to remove one or two trees to test the septic area, that he had no knowledge of the pending plan, and he had never agreed or intended to agree to the clear cutting of trees, and that this took him completely by surprise when he was out of the country and had no ability to take any action until after he was done.”

Ms Cronin said Mr. Malkin was incorrect. “I can tell you that that is not accurate. I believe you that that is what he told you, but what he told you was not accurate if that’s what he said.”

Mr. Pecora repeated that the tree needed to be removed for the purpose of protecting his asset since a firetruck could gain access from the Post Road. “It can only gain access with the driveway at hand without us spending tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.

Dr. Kramer said, “As the result of you or your company developing, which then requires an expanded 26 foot driveway, that’s why the tree was posted for removal.”

“No that’s wrong,” Pecora said.

“The reason is, Kimley Horn, traffic engineer, turning radius of the town trucks can’t get into the property…It’s your choice whether you want to remove it or not. I’m just telling you a firetruck cannot protect the asset by getting into the property that is completely surrounded by fence.”

Sandra Heath of Brookridge Drive said she was skeptical of the fire engine access argument. “The drawings look like they were hastily done. By that drawing, anyone with a pillar at the end of their driveway couldn’t have fire access. I don’t buy it.”

Elizabeth Dempsey of Hillside Rd said, “With the applicant cutting 22 trees and denuding the property at the top of this hill, it is particularly barren and likely to increase the existing flooding downstream.”

“I echo the concerns of others when the developer doesn’t fully own the property and the owner is Chris Franco,” Dempsey added. “The applicant and the lot is not on the sewer map, and therefore in my opinion this action is premature.”

Nancy Ramer, a former P&Z commissioner who lives in Riverside, said there were numerous neighborhoods where the firetrucks don’t access a property put out fires.

“If the applicant had gone to the fire department and had an opinion in writing that there was a safety issue, we might be able to think about this,” she continued. “Is there a turning radius for most residential properties in town? I don’t think so. I think this is an unsubstantiated claim.”

Ramer said the tree warden could deny the application and the applicant return with a new application on different evidence.

Francia Alvarez of the tree conservancy said it would take upwards of 40 years for newly planted trees to reach the height seen in the applicant’s rendering.

Alvarez said at Greenwich High School 30+ trees were already removed for the ADA parking at Cardinal stadium and 74 more would be removed for a second GHS access road. Further, the upcoming 2-year DOT bridge project at Hillside and East Putnam might require even more tree removal.

JoAnn Messina said over 800 trees had been removed from the GHS campus in the last decade.

Ashley Cole of Hillside Rd said, “Mr. Pecora talks about protecting his asset. Let me tell you about assets. Trees are assets here. And trees are what is going to protect our neighborhood from the onslaught of water and climate change coming our way.”

“That it’s not even his asset. I don’t think he even owns the property, if I am correct,” she said. “I would ask you respectfully to deny cutting down this tree. I know it’s just one tree, but it’s the principle.”

Sam Romeo, chair of the board of the housing authority, “Greenwich Communities,” said the property was outside the town sewer boundary and to move forward, the applicant would need permission from both DPW and the RTM, and that therefore the application was premature.

“We aren’t the owner as of right, right now, but we do have a contractual right to request that the tree be removed,” Pecora said.

Tara Restieri of Old Church Road said was an EMS worker herself. “If we need to get access to that property, it’s not going to be about turn radius. We would get access to that property. You cannot tell me that we, as EMS, would not be able to access that property, to put out a fire or bring a person in an ambulance.”

Peter Malkin said the existing “asset” at 5 Brookridge was close to the Post Road. “Certainly much closer for the fire department than many houses in Greenwich for access,” he said. “If he’s really concerned about fire access, he could very easily put in a moveable gate from the Post Road to his property.”

Dr. Kramer said he would prepare a written final decision granting or denying the application within three business days, per state statute. Anyone aggrieved by the decision has the right to appeal to superior court in Stamford.

Contract seller Chris Franco, who was unable to attend Friday’s hearing, replied on Saturday to a request for comment.

“Prior to the closing of the sale, the buyers have a contractual right to remove trees. When we entered the contract we were not told their plans for the property, and we did not know what they were going to do. Certainly we had no idea that they would clear cut, nor that they would propose the development plan for the property that they have filed. I care very much about preservation and conservation, and I regret deeply that our earlier plan for the property, which would have preserved the historic structure and many of the large trees, did not pass. We tried very hard over several years to get our plan approved.”

Mr. Franco referred to Milbrook Crossing, which would have created residential units while preserving a row houses along the historic streetscape. Though 5 Brookridge is not prone to flooding, the other properties are.

The development proposal was denied as presented in January 2020, largely due to flooding concerns.

At the time, Pat Sesto, the town’s Director of Environmental Affairs, gave suggestions to the applicant including reducing the number of units and/or the size of the buildings to free up land to park vehicles above the elevation of the more frequent storm events.

See also:

86-Unit, Five Story Affordable Housing Development Proposed for 5 Brookridge, at Corner of East Putnam Ave

Neighbors Slam Brookridge 8-30g Pre-Application; Land Use Attorney Hired by 82 Residents