Showdown over Trees Posted for Removal at GHS Highlights Flawed Process

On Wednesday Greenwich Tree Warden Dr. Greg Kramer held a public hearing on the fate of 34 trees posted for removal on the GHS campus as part of the Cardinal Stadium project.

Architect for the BOE Russ Davidson said that the number of trees had been reduced to 21, and it was necessary to cut them down for fire and emergency access, utilities, storm drainage requirements and ADA Access and parking.

Color coded map of trees slated to be removed for Phase I of the project. In the lower right corner 13 trees have been identified to be retained, bringing the number from 34 down to 21 trees. The six purple circles are trees to be removed for ADA parking lot. The existing curb cut to the Post Road will be widened to meet state DOT requirements and red circles are to provide the fire and emergency and permissible traffic clearances. Green circles indicate trees to be removed for infrastructure improvements/utilities. (Phase II will continue from the parking lot to the back of the property, but it is not yet funded.)

Wes Stout, landscape architect for the BOE, said the trees being taken down had been naturally seeded “volunteers,” and would be replaced with valuable native species including Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Red Cedar, Sycamore, and Tupelo were “substantial” 3-1/2″ to 4″ caliper trees.

“These are average or larger than what you’d see in a new application,” he said of the replacement trees. “They’re basically on their way to maturity.”

About a dozen people testified on the importance of ADA accessibility and parking, and unfortunately the Tree Conservancy members were pitted against the stadium committee and members of the First Selectman’s Committee for People with Disabilities.

“We’re getting kind of ambushed at the end,” said BOE member Joe Kelly serves on the stadium committee. “You guys had plenty of time to contact us and give your opinion on things. Now you’re saying we didn’t discuss things with you guys. We were public on our discussions.”

JoAnn Messina, director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said the issue of removing trees should have come up early in the process, not at the end.

She gave as an example a mature Oak Tree on Greenwich Ave at the corner of East Elm Street that was posted for removal for an ADA ramp after an MI was approved and work on the bumpout on Greenwich Ave was about to start. After a public hearing, Dr. Kramer ruled to take it down, but the decision was appealed to state Superior Court. Ultimately the tree was spared in a compromise.

Gunzburg said that outcome had not worked out well for the disabled community of Greenwich.

“You moved both parking spots to the opposite side of the street. It’s an ableist move, once again, where you’ve decided, okay, disabled people can both park on one side of the street. They don’t have to go to businesses on the other side. This is ridiculous. You do not have jurisdiction over trees that have to do with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Nevertheless, Messina said, “It should not be a decision of, ‘Should we have ADA parking or trees?’ because obviously we should have ADA parking, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of our trees.”

She said the town tree warden should have been in on the conversations much earlier, and suggested that Mr. Kelly had confused the Conservancy with the Tree Warden, who is charged with the care and control of trees.

“The Conservancy is merely a 501(c)3 that assists the town in planting trees with a public private partnership,” she said. “We have planted with the town in excess of 5,000 trees in the last 15 years on public lands in Greenwich.”

“If Dr. Kramer has been involved in the last two years, I apologize, but it was my understanding that the discussion only happened a couple months ago,” Messina said.

“That is correct,” Dr. Kramer said.

Messina said the fact that the existing trees were “volunteers” was not a reason to remove them.

She said when the BOE did the Music Instructional Space and Auditorium “MISA” project at the high school, the then tree warden ruled that each of the 121 trees removed would have to be replaced by 1-1/2 trees, and if they could not be on the GHS campus, they would go on another public school campus in town.

“They were not,” she said.

Similarly, she said 200 trees were cut down at New Lebanon School. “Ultimately there was money transferred in budgets because, again, they were not replanted.”

“The trees needed at the front of the high school – Dr. Kramer was very aware of that and the Tree Conservancy will be planting 30 trees at the front of the high school. We shouldn’t have to do that. The BOE has been taking down all of these trees – just on this campus, in excess of 820, and in total, 1,000 trees on public school property in town.”

Clare Kilgallen, who was a member of the New Lebanon building committee, said that as many trees as possible were planted on the New Lebanon campus.

Trees posted for removal on the GHS campus. Work on the bleachers is under way. April 29, 2021 Photo: Leslie Yager

Alan Gunzburg, chair of the First selectman’s Advsory Committee for People with Disabilities, said, “My civil rights are currently under attack through this. You have no right to block the ability for us to have a stadium that is fully accessible.”

“You don’t have a right to even talk about these trees. This hearing is a sham,” Gunzburg said. “There’s no reason for this hearing.”

Board of Education chair Peter Bernstein said, “If there is anything to be learned here, they should bring you in early on any town project so you can be involved from the outset. I see that as a go-forward fix, and if you talk to Katie DeLuca (Greenwich Town Planner), she’ll figure out how to make that happen, but I think that’s a really important thing.”

Bernstein said while there were some lovely wooded parts of the GHS campus, the areas with trees posted for removal were not among them.

He suggested the Tree Conservancy clear the scrub and beautify the area by the waterfall by the corner of Hillside Rd and Putnam Ave. “I think that could be a beautiful site,” he added.

Toward that end, Ashley Cole, a member of the Town of Greenwich Sustainability Committee and a liaison to the Greenscape Committee and resident of Hillside Rd opposite GHS, announced that she and Joe Kelly had been working on a private partnership to restore and landscape the waterfall area.

“We will be planting lots of trees there,” she said. “We think this is one of the signature beauty spots in Greenwich and on the Post Road.”

Ms Cole proposed that for every tree removed, two trees replace it.

“And we also plant as large a tree as we possibly can and we also load up the GHS campus with trees and plants, and return the landscape back to GHS for the students, the town and the neighbors, and make it gorgeous.”

Hillside neighbor Elizabeth Dempsey said she represented both causes. She decried safety and access problems as well of the “terrible loss of trees on campus.”

“The school looks barren and bleak, and someone referred to its style as ‘modern day penitentiary,’ for lack of replacing trees,” she said. “We can work together to solve these problems, but we must address safety and access first.”

After public comments, Dr. Kramer said he would issue his decision in three business days. Anyone who objects to the decision has the option of appealing the decision at the State level.

See also:

Pre-Application for 20-Unit 8-30g Development on Putnam Ave Flag Lot in Riverside