NORWALK, Conn. — Allowing a developer or utility company to replace a fully mature tree with a sapling is just not acceptable and won’t be done anymore, City leaders say.
It’s not just talk. The Common Council Ordinance Committee is working on a “more enlightened” tree ordinance that would, among other things, require developers to protect a tree’s root zone during construction and to pay a bond before work begins.
Meanwhile, tree-related activities are ongoing in multiple layers of City government. The Tree Advisory Committee has lined up 20 tree liaisons to work in their neighborhoods, approaching people and suggesting tree plantings in addition to keeping an eye on things. The Department of Public Works has also developed a geolocation program, mapping the tree canopy.
The focus on trees comes in the wake of a 2018 Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG) report concluding that Norwalk has the lowest percentage of tree canopy in western Connecticut, with 39.2% compared to Stamford’s 50.2% and Danbury’s 52%. Trees improve air quality and property values, the report said.
Norwalk Senior Civil Engineer Paul Sotnik recently called that report “slightly slanted.” Stamford has forested areas that offset the urban core, where you can’t plant trees because they’d be in a sidewalk or “something like that,” he said in April. “… So, it made it look worse than what it really is.”
More recent than the tree study is November’s minor outcry over Eversource removing eight mature evergreen trees at Oak Hills Park, because of their proximity to the power lines.
They were probably 80-foot-tall century-old trees, Norwalk Tree Warden Chris Torre said in April, linking their demise to a change of heart: allowing a utility company to remove a mature tree and replace it with a sapling is not a fair trade.
“Those practices are not going to take place anymore,” he said.
But, he said, “Every single tree that’s a part of city property is a liability to the city. Trees fall. Trees fall in winds, they fall in weather, they are a liability. So, I’m not saying that in a bad way. But we need to put the conversation in context…. We don’t take trees down unnecessarily. And we’re moving forward with some adopting some new ordinances that deal with trees specific to the building around the city and tree protection.”
‘It’s not so easy’
The WestCOG report states, “On average over their lifespans, trees produce between $30 and $147 in benefits per year depending on their size. These figures include energy savings, stormwater runoff reduction, aesthetic value, air quality improvement, and carbon dioxide sequestration. Each year, Norwalk’s trees provide an estimated $36 million in benefits. This equates to $408.18 per resident annually…. WestCOG found that for every dollar spent on tree care in Norwalk, the city receives $3.59 in benefits.”
But increasing the tree canopy is not so simple, according to Sotnik. If trees are on private property, technically the City has no jurisdiction via a tree ordinance, he said. The Tree Advisory Committee would like zoning regulations to be beefed up to require tree plantings on private property.
“We’re looking at it all sort of in a holistic approach,” Common Council member Tom Livingston (D-District E) said. In addition to revising the existing tree ordinance, Council members are working with Planning and Zoning to incorporate trees and other “similar items” into planning documents and considering sustainability incentives.
“One of the things, too, that you have to take into account when you’re putting trees on a street … is the storefronts,” Torre said. “A lot of municipalities have taken trees out of the middle of their towns because the store owners say that the signs can’t be seen and that visibility to their shop or their store is impeded by the trees. So, it’s not as easy to just say, ‘Hey, we need trees here’ and plant them.’”
‘Proactive, not reactive’
Still, “We really could do with a more enlightened tree ordinance. Our tree ordinance is a pretty bare-bones type of ordinance. And it was pretty much adopted so that we could be a Tree City in the state of Connecticut,” Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan (D-District E) said last month. “We’ve had pretty extensive conversations with people at DPW and conservation groups that there could be some a little bit more be a meat put on the bones of this.”
Danica Doroski, who became the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Urban Forestry Coordinator in January, has been involved in the talks.
“I think we have maybe 18 cities in Connecticut that have tree ordinances,” she said, advising “consideration of trees throughout their whole lifecycle.
“We tend to be very focused on tree planting, which is great and very exciting,” she said. “But I think that tree planting is also expensive, both, you know, economically and carbon-wise, when you think about how much carbon goes into growing seedlings and transporting them in planting them. So, we want to make sure that the trees that we plant survive, and are able to provide all of the services that we sort of associate with them.”
Very few municipalities have pruning programs, although these will help trees survive windstorms, she said. Climate change will bring more storms and “we’ll lose the benefits of those trees.”
But more than losing the benefits, “it changes public perception of the urban canopy … all of a sudden, of trees ‘being this asset’ to ‘being a huge disservice’ and to ‘being a liability.’ And so, I think, thinking about trees throughout their whole lifecycle could be is a really important step to minimizing that sort of big end-of-life costs that we end up taking on.”
Norwalk’s ordinance is “what’s mandated,” a generic piece of legislation, Torre said.
“We want to be proactive, not reactive,” Torre said. “Every municipality has development. That’s how, you know, municipalities survive. But we don’t do enough to protect our trees during development. What’s below the ground is more important to the diversity and the success of a tree, as opposed to what’s up top.”
The “drip line” is the area around the tree where rainfall comes down, but the root system can extend twice as far as the drip line, from private property onto City property or under the road, Torre said. A new ordinance could hold developers responsible for compacting the soil around trees and putting up a chain-link fence to protect the tree, rather than easily knocked-down snow fencing.
That could be part of DPW’s standard requirements, Sotnik said.
Another possible revision to the tree ordinance could be to eliminate the “one for one” replacement guideline, Torre said. Whether it’s the City, a utility company or a private property owner, “we’re saying you have to plant 10 trees when you take down a City tree,” he said, adding, “We’d like a larger diameter tree to be planted, not six inches, a little bigger than that for sustainability.”
Mapping Norwalk’s trees
“The components of a really strong tree ordinance are our considerations of big picture. What do you have? What’s your resource like? What is your current urban forest canopy like? And knowing that, where do you want to go with it?” Doroski said. “Then once you know where you want to go, identifying the steps that you need to get there, and those are sort of the key components to the ordinance.”
Using data to drive forest management is “really often overlooked,” she said.
“There is a lot to talk about,” Shanahan observed, asking if canopy percentages were needed or if the less expensive inventory route would suffice.
“Having an inventory is a really, really great way that you can understand how, you know, sensitive or how vulnerable you are to an invasive pest. But it’s also a really great way of keeping in check what your current diversity levels are,” Doroski said.
Norwalk has asset management software to track the canopy, Torre said. “We know every tree that we take down, every permit that comes in, every request from the residents for tree removal.”
The City has developed a geolocation system, Tree Advisory Commission member Peter Viteretto said.
“One of the things we’re doing is mapping … where the trees are, what kind of tree is there, what size is the tree, you know, just different metrics that can be included in this geolocation system,” he said.
Sotnik gave specific examples and said the system tracks the development of a tree, so City workers can see how it’s doing.
“Maybe we can look at this map and see, OK, our canopy cover is a little lacking in this area and make that area of focus in our spring or fall planting,” Tree Advisory Commission Chairperson Erica Kipp said. The data can also be used to get grants.
‘Boots on the ground’
“Believe it or not,” the “predominant” reason people ask the City to chop down its trees because they don’t like the annoyance factor, Torre said.
“It’s not because they want to solar panels on the roof, and they’re trying to be environmentally friendly. It’s because they don’t want to deal with leaves. They don’t want the stuff falling on their house or in their gutters,” Torre said.
Doroski spoke of a need to teach citizens about trees.
“You tend to get very focused on things like street trees. But you know, for most of Connecticut, most of our urban tree canopy cover actually falls on private residential properties,” she said. “And that’s something that there’s, you know, the municipality perhaps doesn’t have jurisdiction over right now. But I think that’s what it feels like education and outreach can go a long way, in terms of improving management on private property.”
When trees are taken down, perhaps they can be replaced in another area that’s “barren,” Council member David Heuvelman (D-District A) suggested. Torre said this would give residents the chance to see what they’re missing.
But it’s a struggle, Torre said. For many years, the City planted trees on the “snow shelf,” the strip of land next to a road. Now, “What we’re trying to do is to get the homeowners involved and plant the trees on the other side of the sidewalk, where it’s protected a little bit more, and maybe the homeowner has an active investment to make sure that it has water and to notify us.”
To that end, the Tree Advisory Committee has lined up 20 liaisons, Norwalkers who know their neighborhoods, the spots that might be good for a tree and the trees that are in a precarious state, Kipp said, explaining that the “boots on the ground” will do a better job than the five volunteers in the Tree Committee, who can’t “see every crevice of the city that could use some greening.”
Fenella Pearson and Sonia Oliver are among the 20 folks who have agreed to work with their neighbors. They’ll get their first training session Aug. 22.
“I can’t take credit for the liaison program,” Kipp said. “That was something that was in place already, when I joined the Committee, and the paperwork that we’re revamping is from 2005. So it’s been in existence, at least since then, we are trying to, you know, kind of make it a little more sexy, as we say, a little more user friendly.”
Liaisons and City workers won’t be handing out a dry, boring, academic list of trees that can be planted, that’s being replaced with a flier complete with images of mature specimens and their characteristics, Kipp said.
But it’s a struggle to find people who will allow the City to plant a tree on their property, and often the right-of-way doesn’t go far enough into the property, Torre said.
Here’s a piece of education for you: a tree might be planted on private property but once it grows over or under City land, the City owns it.
“It’s our tree, no longer your private tree, it’s the City’s tree,” Torre said. “So, it needs a permit to remove it. You can’t just remove it. And even if you said, ‘Hey, my great grandfather planted that 75 years ago,’ doesn’t matter, it’s our tree.”
The City pursues property owners who remove trees without permits.
“Our goal is not to fine people, it’s to bring them into compliance,” Sotnik said. “If we can get them to plant, it’s better to have them plant and redo stuff, rather than just taking money for fines.”