Whose Woods Were These
clear-cutting Wilton's trees
Over the last hundred years, as working farms gave way to emerging woods, trees have come to define the look and feel of Wilton, this handsome old pilgrim town whose character is present in every woodland, stream, and old stone wall. Beautiful New England varieties such as elm, sugar maple, and oak are now at war with the practice of clear-cutting them to create over-sized lawns, and often, over-sized houses to go with them. If you’ve ever driven along a shady Wilton road and come upon a building site that looked as if a bomb had exploded there, you know what I mean. Perhaps, like me, you’ve wondered if stripping an old pilgrim of his woods was even legal. I decided to find out.
On public lands, Wilton’s trees are well protected. In general, the town maintains its trees responsibly; we are, after all, a Tree City USA, one of only 17 towns in Connecticut to receive this designation from the Arbor Day Foundation. During the widening of Route 7, First Selectman Bill Brennan pushed the Department of Transportation for a plan that has brought a thousand new trees to the corridor. In addition, the Wilton Tree Committee, a pro-active conservation group, has planted thirty-three new flowering crabapple, oak, and dogwood in the town center. Safe to say, trees on public land are not the problem.
The woods Wilton is losing, it is losing one backyard, one lot, one construction site at a time. We’re not talking about a homeowner’s right to remove a tree close to his house, or cut a few to create a play area for kids, improve a view, or the sightline of a driveway. This is about the practice of clear-cutting thousands of square feet of woods all at once without regard for the effect on drainage, privacy, or Wilton’s identity. Leafy maple, oak, and ash, whose leaves cool the air in summer and whose root systems drain overflow in spring, and the patchwork of woodlands and walls that make Wilton one of New England’s treasures are being threatened by the creation of estate-like lawns, and the leveling of wooded lots to prepare for construction. Why?
“People want a yard,” said realtor Ruth Beck. “Space for kids to play soccer or for a pool. But taking all the trees down does not add value.” Wilton architect Robert Sanders, explained that when he plans a home site, he documents any tree with a diameter of eight inches or greater, but cautions it takes time to do that. “In the end it comes down to sensitivity to features on a site-by-site basis,” he said. Without regulation, “sensitivity to features” is all that stands between century-old woods and a two-day frenzy of clear-cutting. Unlike every town in Westchester, Wilton has no ordinance, policy, or even a recommendation in regard to cutting down trees. Surprisingly, while site plans must be filed to address wetlands, there are no guidelines about how to approach wooded uplands. Wetlands, yes; uplands, no. The irony is that the two share many functions: in addition to providing natural beauty, they each filter pollutants, take in water, and prevent the flooding and erosion that causes property damage.
One Wilton homeowner explained how years of development in her neighborhood eventually outpaced the town’s drainage system, and her yard flooded whenever it rained heavily. “With the loss of trees and underbrush, the run-off volume tripled beyond what the original drainage system could handle. The road flooded, then our yard and basement.” Eventually, the town installed additional drainage pipes and catch basins to correct the problem. Another resident, who bought her house 28 years ago, described it as being on a deeply wooded country lane between an apple orchard and an old, working farm. Today that lane is synonymous with development she watched “change the whole texture of Wilton.” Orchards, woodlands, and stone walls were destroyed to build over-sized houses and asphalt driveways that redefine a landscape when acres of trees are cut to create even more new McMansions.
Like Wilton, New Canaan has no tree ordinance to regulate cutting trees on private property, but they do have a policy that requires an accounting for drainage on every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface—an asphalt tennis court, for example—or an outbuilding. “We compare the natural drainage provided by trees to the run-off caused by removing them,” engineer Steve McAllister of McChord Engineering explained. While the goal of the New Canaan policy is to prevent standing water, the additional bonus is that it ends up protecting some of those great, natural water-suckers: trees.
Richard Ziegler, former vice chairman of the Wilton Wetlands Commission, lives next to a five-acre parcel of land where 130 trees were taken down for an 18,000-square-foot house. The house was never built, but the damage was done, not only to the trees, but to the stone walls as well. Those five acres are now a fallow lot with a couple of cemented walls, gateways to nothing. “When we moved here in 1992,” Ziegler said, “we couldn’t see the house to our north because there was thirty feet of underbrush. But they cleared everything out—the whole barrier.”
Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall,” declared, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Who could argue? Good walls between meadows and good woods between properties provide privacy that distinguishes Wilton from other suburban landscapes. But privacy, above all, is threatened by clear-cutting, and many residents find it heartbreaking.
“It felt like cold water being thrown against my chest when the woods next door to our house went,” said another homeowner. “They cut down so many trees, not just at the back of the property, but at the front too, and all along the road. The canopy of leaves that rewarded you at our hilltop was gone.” “It’s irresponsible,” said First Selectman Bill Brennan, about this kind of extreme clear-cutting. “I also think it devalues the property.”
“The piece that people don’t understand is how far beyond the look and feel it goes,” said director of environmental affairs Pat Sesto. She ought to know. In her 17 years working for Wilton, she has witnessed the flooding and erosion that are the most destructive downside of losing trees. And yet, no one, from homeowner to developer, has had to think about the connection between trees and drainage because no one has had to account for the difference in run-off between existing trees and a leveled landscape. Year after year, Wilton goes forward without a plan, policy, or ordinance governing how builders, developers, and homeowners approach our woods.
“We’re dealing with property rights,” said Brennan. “But there are enough examples here where people have been excessive. We ought to have a public forum discussion.” Indeed, a public forum might start the ball rolling. But until the town requires plans for landscaping and managing run-off, clear-cutting trees is a free-for-all in which today’s woodland is tomorrow’s mulch.
Harsh as it may sound, if town officials and residents don’t take the initiative on this issue, we may be looking at many more great holes in Wilton’s wooded landscape.
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