81 Residents Tune in for Zoom Hearing on Fate of Century Old Elm in Old Greenwich

An online tree hearing to determine the fate of a century old Elm tree at the corner of Edgewater and Sound Beach Ave in Old Greenwich drew a crowd on Thursday.

In fact there were 81 attendees via Zoom.

Opinion was divided on whether the venerable tree, which admittedly is in decline, should be removed or allowed to live possibly another 10 or 15 years.

Advocates for sparing the tree noted that it provides shade, habitat, beauty and history.

Photo: Leslie Yager

Susie Baker said the previous Tree Warden had referred to it as a “champion” and that it had survived Dutch Elm disease for decades.

Steve Gospodinoff from the Tree Dept in Parks & Rec said he had inspected the tree with a probe and found decay in the trunk and hollow spots in its root system.

“I found enough that would predispose that tree for failure,” he said.

Greenwich Tree Foreman Joseph Kay said the Elm was “starting to flag” and might have succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. He said it was a mater of time before the tree would die and noted there were many spots where the bark was peeling away.

“The tree is in overall decline,” he said.

James Fawett, a licensed arborist and tree climber for the Town said he had gone up in a bucket truck to inspect the tree’s canopy and found “heavy decline.”

“With a lot of pedestrian traffic, it’s a big issue,” he said.

Greenwich Tree Warden, Dr. Greg Kramer via Zoom Nov 5, 2020

Tree Warden Dr. Greg Kramer said, “a well done, professional assessment of the tree” had been conducted.

There was talk about how the tree impedes sight lines for drivers turning left onto Sound Beach Ave from Edgewater, which is the only way in and out of the neighborhood.

“It’s near a busy road, near a school, power lines and over a very busy road,” Kramer said.

Paul Pugliese of Old Greenwich said he had grown up with the tree, which he guessed was there before Old Greenwich School was built.

“It’s one of the more important trees in Old Greenwich, and if it’s in declining health to the point where it’s imminently in danger of dying, I’d say it needs to be taken down,” he said. “However, if it has 10 or 15 more years left, with proper care, we should try to preserve it.”

“None of us can wait 100 years for another tree like that to grow,” Pugliese said.

Peter Berkschneider said he makes that left turn daily and that the tree was a visual obstacle, creating an unsafe situation.

“My biggest concern is it’s not a matter of if an accident is going to happen, but a matter of when,” Berkschneider said.

“To see around the corner you have to inch into the crosswalk, which has kids and bikes in it,” he said. “I have no joy or happiness on taking down a historic tree.”

Marc Ducret, of Edgewater Drive, said the tree had been a hazard for many years.

“One of my good friends totaled his car driving to GHS in 1985. My cousin Andrew was also in a serious accident at this corner,” he said.

“I don’t think the sight line issue should be minimized,” he said. “Come down to Edgewater and try to make a turn out. There’s a real lack of visibility there.”

Ducret had a police record of four accidents at the intersection since 2015. He noted that three of the accident reports sighted the tree as a factor. He added that Old Greenwich School is next door and pick-up and drop-off populates the intersection with children.

“It’s difficult to leave. You have to look for cyclists and pedestrians,” Ducret said.

Ducret said the tree had dropped branches over the years.

“God forbid another big branch falls of and someone is seriously injured,” he added. “I’m a scout leader and appreciate the value of trees.”

Elm Tree at corner of Edgewater and Sound Beach Ave. Photo courtesy Marc Ducret

Patick Connell agreed. He said to see around the tree requires incing out into the street, where there are also pedestrians on the sidewalk and bicyclists along the curb.

Candace Garthwaite said it would be heartbreaking to lose such an important tree.

“I’d like a more organized and systemic way to evaluate and care for monumental trees,” she said. “We have to keep planting trees.”

Dr. Kramer said the Town was in the process of creating a database of trees, their health, their management, including when they were last worked on.

“We have a work order system, but this will be more in depth and will have more science behind it,” he said. “We will initiate that this year.”

Also, he said that in partnership with the Greenwich Tree Conservancy numerous trees have been planted.

“We’re not only removing trees. We’re putting a lot of trees back in,” he said.

Kramer said there were ways to measure the health of tree growth and vitality depending on their species and age.

“Older trees are less vigorous, but there are ways to measure growth,” he said. “There leaf density, decay issues, and fruit and seed production.”

JoAnn Messina, executive director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said, “We usually open with what was posted and who asked for the posting. I’d ask the town for a process for everyone to see letters that come in so they can be on the record.”

Messina said it was important to know the reasons why a tree is posted.

She argued that if the tree was a hazard the town would remove it without posting it first.

“Safety is number one. If it was a hazard, the town would have taken it down,” she said. “It’s 100 years old, so clearly it’s in decline, but the question is how much is that decline?”

“The idea of the sight line issue – I was down there. I do not see where this Elm Tree is a sight line issue,” Messina continued. “It’s a very flat road. It’s a very straight road. Prior to getting in the intersection, you can see clearly from both sides.”

“As for four accidents, that’s interesting. We looked into that and weren’t able to get that information. I’d like to know why everyone wouldn’t have that information from the police chief. Why isn’t all this information known?” Messina asked.

Messina said many trees were coming down in town. She pointed to the recent decision to remove six specimen trees in Glenville that were perfectly healthy to make way for upgrades to the Glenville Rd corridor.

“The question isn’t always the health of the tree. It’s why aren’t we preserving our specimen trees?” she said.

“This tree has more risks in terms of its health and decay,” Kramer replied. “It was posted due to sight lines and health of the tree.”

Kramer said he was holding the public hearing so residents could express their opinions and because the tree was historic.

“This was the opportunity for everyone to have their opinions listened to, and for us to express what we found,” Kramer said.

Mike Finkbeiner, a land surveyor and consulting forester with a degree from the Yale Forestry School, said he had worked on an inventory of trees for Port Chester.

He said that on Port Chester’s website it is possible to open a map and obtain data on a tree.

“There is a form for citizen input,” he added. “There is a GIS layered with 36,000 street trees…. This adjacent community did a thorough job monitoring trees at risk.”

“One of the reasons I got into forestry had to do with remote sensing,” Finkbeiner said. He explained that an infrared reflection of a tree gives a good sense of the extent that photosynthesis is active.

“The infrared signature of this tree is in serious decline,” he said.

Photo: courtesy Marc Ducret
Photo: courtesy Marc Ducret

Mary Jay of Lockwood Drive said she found it hard to believe that Ms Messina had no trouble exiting Edgewater onto Sound Beach Ave.

“That’s the number one issue, if you ask any single person in the Edgewood area. It is undoubtedly quite an issue. I’ve been here 33 years. Bikes, scooters and walkers zip in front of cars as you’re waiting to leave. I can’t tell you how many times I inch out and there have been a lot of near misses.”

Charlene Barnes of Old Greenwich spoke in defense of the tree.

“If there is an unusual amount of accidents, and if it is exceptionally dangerous, I’m wondering why noting has been done to ameliorate that,” she said. “If it’s a traffic problem, there should be a traffic solution.”

“It is in the way, but having to be extra careful, I understand it’s annoying, but it hardly seems like a reason to take down a large tree,” she added.

“What make it in decline is the same reason it’s valuable: It’s a 100 year old Elm tree.”

Barnes said the tree has an enormous canopy, is beautiful.

“Nobody moves to the neighborhood because there are 20 year old trees. It changes what the whole area feels like.”

Charlene Barnes, Old Greenwich

Nancy Ramer who lives in Riverside said, “There is clearly a safety issue here, but I don’t think the remediation is to take the tree down.”

She suggested adding signage to indicate a warning about visibility and posting the speed limit.

Also, she said, “I went on the website and found nothing at all about this hearing. I found notices about a series of previous hearings this year, the last one on Oct 8. There’s nothing telling you there is a hearing today on the website.”

“If the tree has 10 more years of life, that’s a long time,” Ramer said.

Julie DesChamps of Old Greewnich said she was saddened by the loss of so many trees in the neighborhood. She asked the town to find a compromise, “a little creative thinking,” possibly some signage, mirrors to enhance visibility, to avoid the removal of the tree.

“It’s surprising we haven’t taken these measures after decades of accidents and other problems. I’m hoping a compromise can be reached,” DesChamps said.

Margot Mabie said succinctly, “If the tree has more life in it, we should do what we can to keep it going.”

Mabie suggested creating a three-way stop, which she suggested would have the impact of slowing traffic going into the village.

Francia Alvarez, the advocacy chair for Greenwich Tree Conservancy said mature street trees were indeed valuable.

She said settled street treescapes typically contain larger trees and therefore store more carbon per tree than interior forests, resulting in noise reduction and reduced carbon emissions.

“In addition climate change is also an enormous to our CT trees,” she said. “We are all living with the increased frequency and intensity of storms.”

Susie Baker asked the town to protect the majestic tree.

“It deserves the dignity of being protected if it is a ‘champion’ tree,” she said. “It adds so much character to the area and takes your eye away from the outrageous looking electric lines around it.”

The hearing continued for almost two hours. After everyone had a chance to speak, Dr. Kramer said he would issue his decision in three business days.

See also:

Tree Warden Rules on Mature Trees Posted for Removal on Glenville Rd

October, 2020

Greenwich Tree Warden Rules on Sunshine Ave 50-Inch Diameter White Oak

May, 2020