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Norwalk seeks ‘more enlightened’ approach to tree canopy

A view of Norwalk’s tree canopy, from Westport Avenue.

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.

Trees at Oak Hills Park in November. They’ve been removed; the plan is to replace them with native dogwoods and shrubs that will provide food for wildlife, Oak Hills Park Nature Advisory Committee member Audrey Cozzarin said. (Yvonne “Myška” Lopaur)

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.’”

Trees on the Lakota Oaks property.

‘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, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Urban Forestry Coordinator, speaks to the Norwalk Common Council Ordinance Committee on July 20.

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.

Senior Civil Engineer Paul Sotnik.

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.

Ordinance Committee Chairwoman Lisa Shanahan (D-District E).

“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.

Trees at Union Park South.

‘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.

Department of Public Works Superintendent of Operations Chris Torre, Norwalk Tree Warden.

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.”

18 comments

M Murray August 9, 2021 at 6:45 am

“The Tree Advisory Committee would like zoning regulations to be beefed up to require tree plantings on private property.” Isn’t this a little bit scary?? Now the government wants to tell you you have to plant trees on your own property and whether you can protect your home by cutting one down or not??

George August 9, 2021 at 6:52 am

Meanwhile the state DOT is clear cutting trees an removing the roots on the Merritt Parkway southbound between Exits 41 and 40. Where all the outrage over that? Not one word about it in Nextdoor.

It’s funny to read how three big city’s have less trees. How could one possibly think of a reason why the could be? Gee, I don’t know why. Maybe because they are city’s that have industrial areas compared to towns that are mostly residential???

Bruce Kimmel August 9, 2021 at 8:58 am

Good story. I live in Cranbury and can’t believe how many healthy, mature trees have been cut down by homeowners on their property. We definitely need an ordinance and a program to address this issue.

Audrey Cozzarin August 9, 2021 at 9:27 am

Thank you, Nancy, for this comprehensive article about a timely subject. With the heat and fires scorching our planet right now, stewardship of the earth is becoming more important. As is pointed out here, taking down a mature tree—which provides a great service by sequestering/storing carbon, as well as cooling shade—can’t be replaced with a small sapling.

In Norwalk, like other suburban/urban cities, decorative planting or squeezing trees here and there is unnatural and had lead to the “heat islands” and lack of canopy we see today. Treating trees as annoyances, in the way, an inconvenience to our human desires, is a crime.

Homeowners who fear trees will fall on their houses have legitimate and practical concerns. However, if we acknowledge that the decorative nature of planting in suburbia is not really in tune with nature, we could begin to live WITH nature instead of near or against it. Urban areas require removing nature and then trying to reinstall some aspects of it almost as an afterthought. We know better now.

For our own future, as human beings we are not separate from nature. We are part of the earth as all wisdom traditions teach. I think with climate change crises staring us in the face, we are beginning to understand this.

I applaud the Common Council’s efforts to strengthen our tree ordinance, and am delighted that CT-DEEP is a leader on urban forestry efforts. We need to communicate to homeowners best practices and the value of trees and hold our city to a leadership level of stewardship. It’s best to hold onto the oldest trees, worth their weight in gold.

Priscilla Feral August 9, 2021 at 11:56 am

I’m so pleased to hear Norwalk’s focus on addressing its low tree canopy, and the need to recalculate what should be done if trees are removed. A 100-year-old native tree provides shelter and food for animals. They’re the planet’s lungs, using up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. Cutting down trees for development, or willy-nilly because someone dislikes leaves falling, as Tree Warden Chris Torre says, is bad for the Earth — much less real estate and the human condition.
As informed Council members and others know, we fight climate crisis by planting more trees. When they’re chopped down, they release carbon dioxide that they have stored, so replacing substantial trees with less viable ones is an insult, and it’s time to get it right.

Kay Anderson August 9, 2021 at 2:52 pm

This is the best news I’ve read in a long time. Please quickly get to the Cranberry neighborhood and map what’s left before we have no trees on property that sells. And I encourage the Ordinance Committee to require inexpensive permits from private home owners seeking to remove trees. We need permits to add to our homes – tree removal permits can require a reason for tree removal.

Tysen Canevari August 9, 2021 at 4:04 pm

Well maybe if we stop building skyscraper apartments all over Norwalk the lack of trees wouldnt be a problem. Sounds like a feel good topic to talk about but no action taken. People will continue to cut their own trees down because at the end of the day they belong to them not the city

Skip Hagerty August 9, 2021 at 10:02 pm

The city is saying it wants to plant more trees? Interesting. I bet for every tree the city plants in the next 12 months there will be at least 5x as many new apartments built. Then, in effort to fix the traffic problems resulting from all the new apartments they’ll be forced to cut down mature trees in order to widen the roads.

CT-Patriot August 9, 2021 at 11:38 pm

Now, who will point the finger when one tree takes down power lines knocking out a neighborhood?

If utilities cut tree branches that make a tree unhealthy or just down right ugly, who then “judges” if it can be cut down?

As for “permits” to cut down a tree on MY property? Yeah, bad idea…it’s my tree not a city or town owned tree. What next? Permit to cut grass? Trim the bush? I think we all had enough of government dictating how we must live. Permits to allow removing your own tree on your property how crazy and absurd!

I like tree canopy..but to do it takes time and besides, we will be gone from this earth before you can enjoy driving down the road filled with tree canopy in Norwalk.

Unless you drive through parts of Greenwich, there’s plenty to enjoy and marvel at. Face it, Norwalk is NOT Greenwich not will it ever be.

Go enjoy it there while you can be ause I just don’t think it will come to fruition in Norwalk.

Permits to cut down your own tree..what a hoot…thanks I needed a laugh.

What next? Go before a council? Let me guess who chairs it..Treebeard? Or perhaps some other Ent?

Bryan Meek August 10, 2021 at 6:39 am

While we are out mapping trees, can we map the potholes too? Or at least paint over them with a bike symbol?

Bryan Meek August 10, 2021 at 6:41 am

@CT patriot. You are talking about people who thought it was ok to restrict how many people you had in your home. You think they’ll really stop at telling you how you can cut your grass? Give it time.

Audrey Cozzarin August 10, 2021 at 9:13 am

I would venture to say, to those who feel trees “belong” to them, is that trees belong to EVERYONE. If you are familiar with Native American culture, the earth and the land are a gift for everyone—the concept of land-ownership being incomprehensible. Trees provide benefit for all who live and breathe the same air and drink the same water, no matter where they are located.

If public utilities companies would start putting power lines underground like many developed countries do, trees falling on power lines and inconveniencing us would remedied. On my street here in Norwalk, with houses built in the 1970s, our lines are buried. But we are connected to the street with its 19th-century technology, aka old phone poles.

David Muccigrosso August 10, 2021 at 10:39 am

For all those skeptics… go take a look at some 5-6 year old realty photos of Washington Street where it’s covered in green. And now go take a look out there right now. Same street, most of the same buildings, buuuuuut… ugly as sin compared to what it used to look like. Those trees looked WELCOMING. Which is kind of what we should be doing with our premier restaurant district, no?

Elsa Peterson Obuchowski August 11, 2021 at 9:13 am

In answer to the question about defining “tree canopy,” I believe it can refer to the size/diameter of branch coverage of an individual tree, or that of a group/stand of trees, or of a collective area such as all the trees in a given city.
I’ve also seen references to the “global tree canopy,” meaning the amount of the Earth that is covered by trees.
This EPA article about green infrastructure may be helpful
https://www.epa.gov/green-infrastructure/what-green-infrastructure

john Flynn August 11, 2021 at 11:47 am

The City Creates liabilities every day. 6 Trees fell in one storm on Ledge Rd, two houses were hit. The City has refused on 5 occasions to cut the dying trees behind 25 Quintard, those limbs land monthly on a 94 year old lady’s home. Those are city trees. They are inaccessable by Picker. When they land on Mrs Duyn, then what? The DNC wants to control everything and the tree canopy idea is just another creation of liabilty without fixing a problem. Using these items as a “Green” election tool. There is no plan of conservation in Norwalk. The City has never solved a single problem. If they cared about the residents they woiuld have covered the silica piles in South norwlak 50 years ago. They would not allow King industries to dump in the Norwalk River. The contaminants in the burried cells will be unleashed by the Walk Bridge. The Ryan Park PCBs were removed on a sunday morning. Lucy died. What about Hoyt Island? The new buildings have test wells. Get ready for another environmental disater. They are creating cancer.

Lady Driver August 12, 2021 at 12:01 pm

@Bryan, One can report a pothole to the city through the app and they’ll fix it. I’ve done it numerous times and they come out almost immediately to fill it on city streets. I’m not sure about the streets that aren’t city property, but I’ve had luck.

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