The Plight of Neighborhood Trees
Earlier this summer, I stepped onto my front porch to get my mail and noticed a sign tacked onto the enormous maple tree across the street. Curious, I headed over to investigate. “Public notice of tree/shrub removal,” the notice began, and then continued: “It is hereby given that the tree/shrub will be removed for the following reason.” On the line below, in thick, black marker, someone had written “In Decline.” The notice concluded with instructions about how to object to the removal of the tree/shrub (one has ten days, after which a public hearing is held) and the printed name of our Fairfield tree warden, the date, and the Fairfield town seal.
I have a complicated relationship with trees. On one hand, one of the benefits of living in the Stratfield section is our tree-lined streets. My side of the street was all farmland until the late 1930s, so we are blessed with some truly remarkable (and remarkably tall) 80-year-old trees. These natural wonders provide much-needed shade, beautify our neighborhood, and provide homes for birds and chipmunks and Dewey the albino squirrel. (Yes, I named him “Dewey.” You’re welcome.)
On the other hand, old trees bring risks. Their complicated root systems buckle sidewalks and pierce sewer lines. Limbs and branches tumble during storms. (Back in the late nineties, during a particularly bad thunderstorm, a tree fell on my Saab; this led to my brief but militant “anti-tree” phase.) And trees, like all living things, eventually find themselves in decline—so, for the betterment of our neighborhood and the safety of our community, I suppose those trees must be felled.
Fairfield is a town that loves our trees—all 300,000 of them, a number that only accounts for those growing on public right-of-ways. For the past thirty years, the Arbor Day Foundation has named Fairfield one of 17 “Tree City USA communities” in Connecticut. (Fairfield and Stamford hold the longest such designations in the state).
If the information provided on Fairfield’s website is any indication, tree warden Jeffrey Minder has his hands full. Tree work receives one of three “priority” designations, ranging from “high priority” (“those trees determined to be hazardous to the public”) to “low priority” (“non-safety related tree work”). Trees cannot be removed “for doing what trees do naturally,” only for posing “risk to the public health, safety or welfare.” Residents are not allowed to trim their own trees without a permit or to plant trees on town property; however, Fairfield does participate in a tree-planting program in which a resident can, for a small cost, select and plant “a tree appropriate for your site…on the public right-of-way along your property line.” The Town of Fairfield even has a Forestry Committee that works with the Tree Warden to promote “awareness and appreciation for the environmental, economic, and cultural value of trees in Fairfield.”
Opinion about the removal of the tree on my street is decidedly mixed. Evelyn Rubak takes a pragmatic approach. “No one wants to cut a tree down,” she says, “but it’s in ill health. They’re old trees. They’re going to have to come down.” A few doors down the block, Jill Keating-Herbst is a bit more reluctant to let go of our neighborhood trees. “Ever since the storms,” she tells me, “I think there’s been a war on trees...I don’t like when they take down too many trees. It’s what makes the character of this neighborhood. It’s what makes people want to live here.”
As for me, I can’t quite decide. Frankly, I adore that big, old, flawed tree. It’s craggy and has character and history, its branches and trunk having outlasted the cows and sheep that grazed beside it back when my yard was just a meadow. That said, I also love my neighbors’ roof, and if any one of these trees were to come down in a storm, there would be devastating consequences. A recent article in the Hartford Courant noted that the tornadoes and microbursts that hit Connecticut in April led to more damage to our electrical system than occurred during Superstorm Sandy, destroying 288 miles of electrical lines.
And what caused much of this damage? You guessed it: trees. So I guess we can’t mourn the loss of an occasional tree, particularly if it has reached the end of its life cycle. The Town of Fairfield might decide to plant a sapling in its place. Perhaps we can imagine that sapling not as a replacement but as an extension—another chapter in the story of our neighborhood, and another chance to take root in the ground and reach toward the sky.
STAR TREES Fairfield is home to the state’s largest red maple, white bark magnolia, and dawn redwood.