UPDATED: Tree Warden Rules on Fate of Honey Locusts on the GHS Campus

On Monday afternoon the Tree Warden, Dr. Greg Kramer announced he approved the chopping of two 16″ Honey Locust trees.

“Having closely listed to the explanations as to why the two Honey Locust trees will need to be removed and understanding the process by which the remediation of the contaminated soil transpires, as Tree Warden it is my decision and have concluded that the two trees are approved for removal,” Kramer said.

However, the tree warden said that having heard prior and current concerns from residents and the Greenwich Tree Conservancy of the continuing loss of trees on the campus, he will require that four new Willow Oak (Quecus phellos) trees of no less than 3″ caliper be replanted on the Greenwich High School campus.

He said the four trees would either be in front of the south parking lot to screen light pollution and cool the parking area or used to replace the dying trees in the parking lot islands.

He said the exact location would be a collaborative effort with Board of Education staff, AECOM
landscape architect and Parks and Trees staff.

It will be required that the four oak trees be planted in the spring of 2022.

Original story: The fate of two 16-inch diameter Honey Locust trees on the west side of the Greenwich High School campus lies in the balance.

At a public hearing on Wednesday, residents and members of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy posed questions to the Tree Warden, Dr. Greg Kramer. He deferred to Dept of Public Works commissioner Amy Siebert and AECOM engineer Elizabeth Doerfler for answers, since Kramer said the trees were requested for removal by the Board of Education as part of the phase 2 remediation plan as cited by AECOM.

One tree is by Field 3 and one is by Field 4.

Tree posted for removal by Field 3 at Greenwich High School. March 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager
Tree posted for removal by field 5. March 31, 2022 Photo: Leslie Yager

Residents and members of the tree conservancy said they were frustrated with the number of trees that have been cut down on the campus over the years.

Over 800 trees have been cut down at GHS in the past decade alone, including more than 700 just to make way to turf fields 6 and 7, plus 121 for the Musical Instruction Space and Auditorium project (MISA), and at least a dozen more for the new ADA parking lot Cardinal Stadium.

When the trees by the stadium were posted in May 2021, many in the community urged a change in the process so that possible tree removal proposals would not be at the end of the process.

Doerfler said the two Honey Locusts posted for removal were in contaminated soil, and that the areas were scheduled to be remediated this summer.

She said the tree by Field 4 was in an area that will be excavated to six feet below grade, so both the tree and its root system would be trucked away with contaminated soil.

The tree by Field 3 was in an area where there will be a more shallow excavation and an impermeable liner installed.

JoAnn Messina, the director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said, “A high level administrator at the high school said there was no contamination there and he has been there quite a while. That was just anecdotal, but it was interesting because that was my thought – that this was not the area we had previously discussed as contaminated.”

“That needs more clarification by the Tree Warden,” she added. “It doesn’t sound quite right to me. There was no issue with these two trees during Phase 1 remediation.”

Messina described the 800+ trees cut down on campus as valuable town assets, both environmentally and economically.

“We lost about 700 trees for fields 6 and 7 when they were clear cut without permit or posting,” she said, adding 120 trees were removed during MISA, 50 trees for dam work by the State of Connecticut, and at least another dozen for the Cardinal Stadium project.

“It’s really a concern we have to discuss each and every time there is a posting for trees here,” she said.

Ashley Cole, a neighbor on Hillside Road, said it was concerning to the entire community that so many trees had been removed and not replaced.

“I think our only high school deserves better,” she said. “Our whole community really needs the high school to reflect the beauty and excellence that is Greenwich. Right now it doesn’t.”

In recent years, MISA construction, remediation work, and general wear and tear have taken a toll on the campus.

Complaints about the state of the campus are not new. The BOE manages the school buildings, but the grounds and fields fall under the purview of Parks & Rec.

Back in 2015 Cathy Weisenberg, then assistant chair of the Parks & Rec board, complained at the May board meeting that the campus was “in shambles.”

After the comment and a Greenwich Free Press story featuring photos of the campus, there was a cleanup in time for graduation.

Similarly, Ms Cole urged the town to beautify the campus, starting with replacing trees that are “owed” as part of conditions of approval for recent variances.

“Help the site,” Ms Cole said. “Help our community and the high school become the shining example of what a Greenwich facility should look like.”

“We’ve been owed 120 trees just for the MISA,” she said.

Ms Cole did note that the building committee for the new secure vestibule entry, of which she is a member, featured the addition of trees and landscaping that were not part of the initial ed specs.

“Planning & Zoning, the Architectural Review Committee, the neighbors and building committee have all come together, but it’s only for that specific tiny piece of the high school.”

Elizabeth Dempsey, who is on the town’s Sustainability Committee and lives on Hillside Road, said not only is the campus owed many trees, but more development was in the works, including a second egress road that will come down the hill from the the stadium to the back parking lot.

She also suggested planting more trees in the south parking lot, which was previously a wooded area.

She described the south lot as a travesty.

“That parking lot is barren. The trees are tiny and failing,” she said. “I’d love to see more screening in front.”

South parking lot at GHS.

“The trees in those skinny little medians are struggling, but there might be more opportunity in front of the parking lot to give it more shading and green. We dropped the ball on that.”

Doerfler said there were plans to add trees back by the pond (near the Black Box Theater entrance), but adding trees closer to Hillside Rd was “more a question for coordination with security and maintenance rather than environmental.”

As far as tree replacement, Dr. Kramer said he was aware of concerns about security and sight lines.

Ms Siebert, commissioner of DPW, said it was hard to say exactly where and how many trees might need to be posted for removal for the access road and the process involved coordination with state regulators.

She explained that during remediation, Dr. Kramer and the BOE know DPW and AECOM are available to provide technical information about what the regulators require, and they are available to be consulted about “where and how to put plant materials in.”

“We do know folks want to see more landscaping where it can be wedged in,” Siebert said.

Ms Messina pressed about why the two trees before the tree warden were left until now.

“It’s not so much that the trees are affected by the contamination. It’s that the dirt has to be removed physically and brought to a landfill,” Doerfler said.

Ms Alvarez asked what additional trees would be requested for removal in summer 2022 and summer 2023 remediation.

“How many more trees are you expecting to have to take down in the areas left to be remediated?” she asked.

“This year, field 3. Next year fields 2 and 5. I don’t believe there are any trees over there that will be affected. I can’t speak for any of the Cardinal stadium or the new entrance happening,” Siebert said. “There is an area slated for 2023 work next to the brook, where the cooling towers are. We’ll be excavating soil there, but we don’t have a full picture there of what’s going to be removed because that phase has not been approved by regulators. There are trees there along the brook. I do not know how many.”

“We understand folks want to know everything all at the beginning,”Siebert said.

Siebert explained that as the phases of remediation unfold, negotiation with regulators was ongoing.

“Even this work we’re in now, as we chunk it out, we get more detail from the regulators about how much they want out of specific areas,” she added. “We’re kind of the messengers of trying to address the contamination and try to give information to Dr. Kramer about where we can put things back when it’s remediated.”

“It’s important to remember we’re under the regulatory requirements of DEEP and EPA, and while we try to help push back, we can’t always save everything, or not excavate every spot.”

As for plans for the new egress road, Siebert said, “We continue to ask (the committee) what their plans are so that can be reviewed and approved by the state,” she said. “It’s an ongoing  process.”

Messina pushed back.

She said her understanding was that when trees were in contaminated soil, they didn’t need to be posted.

“The fact that the trees were posted means there is a choice here,” she said.

Ms Siebert disagreed.

“From a technical standpoint these trees need to go,” she said, but she couldn’t speak to why Dr. Kramer posted them. “Perhaps he wished to provide an opportunity for people to hear about the remediation and have an understanding for why they did need to come down?”

“There’s not a choice. We can’t get out soil to a six foot depth and magically hold the tree up in the air and clean it up,” she added.

The Tree Warden has three business days to share his decision on the two trees. Stay tuned.

See also:

More Trees Posted for Removal at Greenwich High School

March 31, 2022

PHOTOS: GHS Graduation is Two Weeks Away. Construction Mess Needs to Be Cleaned Up.

May 2015

Showdown over Trees Posted for Removal at GHS Highlights Flawed Process

May 13, 2021