Tree Hearing: Residents Urge Compromise to Spare Mature Oak Tree on Greenwich Ave

During a public hearing on the fate of a mature Oak Tree on Greenwich Avenue in front of TD Bank, a couple dozen residents spoke in favor of finding a compromise or workaround that would both save the tree and address the need for an up-to-code handicapped parking spot.

The tree is due to be removed as part of the intersection improvements planned to start shortly, with a price tag of about $300,000.

Mature trees along the west side of Greenwich Avenue.

The Board of Selectman and the Planning & Zoning commission have already granted approval for the Municipal Improvement for the project.

While the residents objected to cutting down the tree, they mostly praised the intersection improvement project and acknowledged the imperative to provide ADA compliant parking.

Senior Civil Engineer for Greenwich, Jason Kaufman, said the project would enhance the intersection with over 1800 sq ft of new green space.

However, he said due to the grades of Greenwich Ave, the location of the tree was the most viable location for a handicapped parking spot and an ADA accessible ramp.

He said the tree trunk impeded sight lines for drivers coming across Greenwich Ave from East to West Elm Street.

Residents disputed the issue about sight lines, and GPD Captain Jim Bonney said that while in the last three years there had been 129 accidents on Greenwich Ave – most of which were backing incidents – only one accident had taken place at the intersection of Greenwich Ave and Elm Street, and it was minor.

“If you’re interested, the most dangerous intersection in town is Arch Street at Railroad Ave,” he continued adding that there were 41 accidents at the intersection of Greenwich Ave and Railroad, making it the sixth ranked for past last three years.

Kaufman also said the crown of the Oak tree was “not looking comparatively healthy to the rest of the trees.”

He explained that while there was an existing handicapped spot in front of TD Bank, drivers who parked there were forced into the street.

“It doesn’t meet code the way it is today,” he said. “When we do projects, we are required to make them meet code.”

Peter Malkin of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy asked about moving the handicapped space slightly to the north, but Mr. Kaufman said ADA codes were very stringent, and required a minimal slope.

“A half an inch to an inch makes a big difference,” he said. “Yes, there would be additional cost for additional sidewalk, curbing and pavement.

Lucy Krasnor agreed with Mr. Malkin, saying the tree was particularly strong and beautiful. “I register a real urge to not cut down this tree,” she said. “I think every project in town lately – all anyone thinks about is removing trees and I’m very upset about that.”

Tori Sandifer also objected to the removal of the tree. She said that while it might cost more to relocate the handicapped spot, there were costs to removing the tree.

Mr. Kaufman said it would cost more to move the handicapped spot than to cut down the tree and plant a new one south of the intersection.

John Conte who is a landscape architect and CT licensed arborist, member of the Greenscape Committee of P&Z and vice chair of ARC, and board member of Green & Clean, vice chair of Greenwich Audubon spoke passionately.

While he complimented the intersection improvements overall, he said he hoped the town might come up with a workaround.

“I ask that we really change the mindset, and paradigm, of designing and drawing, and if a tree just happens to be in the way that tree just gets a red X on it,” he said. “There are so few left.”

He added that one could the case that every tree on Greenwich Ave was in a state of decline.

“They’re all in such a difficult environment, with such a limited root area,” he said. “If we were to tag each one and say it’s in decline and should come down, we’d be in a sorry state.”

“We need to be placing a much higher level of importance on every tree,” Conte continued. “That handicapped ramp is super important, but it does not look like it’s an insurmountable problem to reposition it.”

Francia Alvarez of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said that according to a UConn study, between 1985 and 2015, Greenwich had lost 868 acres of forest. Forests now represent only 37.1% of the land mass, which falls below state guidelines.

Alvarez asked tree warden Dr. Greg Kramer about the condition of the tree.

Dr. Kramer said the tree was in decline, but was not in imminent danger.

Alvarez asked if the tree had been fertilized.

Kramer said the town had pruned all the trees on the Avenue recently and this tree’s canopy was thinning. He said the trees on the Avenue had not been fertilized. He said this tree “could use an influx of fertilization.”

Kramer said there was no plan to fertilize any of the trees on the Avenue.

Mark Greenwald, a landscape designer, who is part of both Green & Clean and the Tree Conservancy, and a former city planner with New York city, said the tree seemed in good health and could benefit from some fertilization and pruning.

“This particular tree ends a line of trees down Greenwich Avenue, which are important,” he said. “To lose any one of them is unfortunate.”

Matt Popp, also a landscape architect, agreed with Conte and Greenwald. “This is a terrific tree,” he said, adding that its presence is a de facto traffic calming measure.

Stephanie Cowie, of the First Selectman’s Committee for People with Disabilities, who uses a wheelchair, described the challenges of getting in and out of a van. She said most handicapped spaces were neither accessible nor compliant, and that ramps coming out of handicapped vans are always on the right side. She said therefore the handicapped space could not simply be flipped to across the street.

Ms Cowie also said she was looking forward to not having to roll her wheelchair into oncoming Greenwich Ave traffic, but rather to access the sidewalk and crosswalk from a spot that is up to code.

Mary Hull, longtime director of Greenwich Green & Clean, said she had been greening up the Ave for 35 years, and that she’d hope to see a compromise between DPW and Parks & Trees.

“I know when the leaves come out it will not be perfect, but according to the tree warden, it does not present a hazard,” Hull said, adding that the tree had a number of years of life remaining.

JoAnn Messina, who is director of the Tree Conservancy, said there was a false choice between ADA compliance and saving a tree, and it was not the first time.

There was a neighborhood outcry over the proposed removal of a historic White Oak tree on Sunshine Ave that was slated to be cut down last spring. Dozens of neighbors joined a Zoom call with the Tree Warden and ultimately the tree warden relented and DPW moved the sidewalk around the tree.

Messina shared that had been the caregiver for someone wheelchair bound for several years. “I firsthand understand the need for ADA compliance. I also understand the health benefits of trees.”

“It’s a difficult situation when the tree hearing happens at the end of a project,” she said, adding that she sympathized with Mr. Kaufman for having done so much work and then having to deal with the tree situation at the end of the process.

“That’s something that should be rectified,” Messina said.

Tree Warden Dr. Kramer said there were initially 41 people on the Zoom call, and 30 of them remained on the call after about an hour. He said most of the 16 letters he had received about the tree were in favor of retaining it.

Kaufman said there were opportunities to plant new trees in the beds that will be created on the southern side of the intersection – either in front of Betteridge Jewelry or Bank of America.

Maggie Bridge from Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses suggested it was important to keep as many mature trees in town as possible.

She said while ADA compliance was important, she hoped there was a way to create a workaround to save the tree.

In fact, several people participated in a conversation about finding a way to accommodate an up-to-code handicapped parking space while sparing the tree.

Ms Bridge talked about the value of mature trees in combating climate change and global warming. Ms Bridge said it would take decades for new trees to reach substantial size.

Sebastian Dostmann, who is part of the Greenwich Community Projects Fund, asked if moving the handicapped spot to the north was a “budget issue.”

Mr. Kaufman said the DPW was provided a budget by the town.

“We’re expected to deliver the project within budget,” he said. “At this point we’re within the budget.”

Leslie Petrick and Peter Malkin both suggested that private donations might make up for the cost of a workaround to spare the tree.

Malkin said he wondered if it was accurate that the tree was a sight line issue.

“Please remove the budget as the issue,” Malkin said.

Alyssa Keleshian, who is part of the Reimagine Greenwich effort and a property owner at 225 Greenwich Avenue, said the tree provided cool canopy for strollers who walk the Avenue.

“These trees, like the other ones on the Avenue, have a strong visual aspect to our community. They create a warm, welcoming aesthetic – much better than a backdrop of some looking at some of our more mature buildings.”

“If we remove this tree, what’s going to stop us from removing other trees?” she asked.

Ms Keleshian challenged Mr. Kaufman as to whether he had done outreach to property owners and merchants on Greenwich Ave. She said she had spoken to several of them and they told her they had not been consulted, and had been taken off guard and were opposed to the removal of the tree.

Mr. Kaufman said there had been several meetings with landlords and tenants at all four corners of the intersection over several months.

Row of mature trees looking north on Greenwich Avenue.

Mr. Kaufman said moving the handicapped spot would require a complete redesign of the intersection.

He explained that incorporating ADA grades into a design on Greenwich Avenue was ‘extremely challenging.’

“While it may look and appear ‘easy,’ it never is,” Kaufman said.

Bill Lewis, who lives on East Elm Street said he opposed the removal of the tree.

“And if that scuttles the plan to do the bump outs, that’s all the better in my view because I really feel they are part and parcel of a plan that makes the intersection less safe because it’s connected with removing police from directing traffic there,” he said. “And if part of the argument is, ‘We’re making it greener,’and you’re taking out a beautiful tree,’they don’t even have that argument in favor of this plan.”

Lisa Vitiello, the owner of the building at 231 Greenwich Avenue, said she understood the importance of ADA, but she hoped for a workaround.

Ms Vitiello said she operated DaVinci’s restaurant for many years on the Ave. She said she had not been notified about the tree removal.

“I only found out very recently about the potential removal of this beautiful tree,” she said, adding that she had lived in Greenwich since 1967.

She described how customers of DaVinci’s used to gaze out at the beautiful tree. “I think that’s a perfect frame for that corner.”

The tree warden said he had three business days to make his determination and that anyone objecting to the decision has the ability to take the issue to the CT Supreme Court.

Stay tuned.