Joseloff urged to seek restitution for axed Main Street trees

Newer bricks in Main Street sidewalks mark the spots where trees were removed --- without the required permission, according to a new report by the Westport Tree Board.
Newer bricks in Main Street sidewalks mark the spots where trees were removed --- without the required permission, according to a new report by the Westport Tree Board.File Photo

The Downtown Merchants Association overstepped its authority in cutting down 19 trees on town property over the past three years, according to the Westport Tree Board, but the board also blames the town tree warden for allowing it to happen.

On April 26 -- observed as Arbor Day in many other places -- the Tree Board agreed to officially request that First Selectman Gordon Joseloff take steps to replant some of the trees chopped down along Main Street and hold the DMA accountable for at least some costs. The town, the board added, should allocate its own money, if necessary, to complete the project.

"Their generosity," member Judy James said of the DMA, which had originally donated the trees to the town, "did not give them the power to remove them."

Last fall, 10 trees were cut down on the south end of Main Street by the DMA and its members, sparking controversy when many people criticized the action. Two years earlier, nine Main Street trees were cut down by the DMA, but neither the tree warden, nor the Department of Public Works, was able to provide any documentation that gave permission for the removals to board members.

"Half of them were removed and there are no records," James said. "Period. They're just gone. We have a minimal amount of recordkeeping for the second part of the removal and those records do not substantiate any reason for the tree removal."

Tree Warden Andy Puskas, contacted had no comment and referred questions to Public Works Director Steve Edwards.

Edwards said the DMA was "probably over-zealous" in acting to have the trees cut down.

"Most all the trees that were taken down were posted," he said, according to town regulations. However, he added, the DMA "overreached," removing some trees for which permission had not been sought.

"Stuff fell through the cracks," Edwards acknowledged, "and we are trying to make sure we have a procedure that is more regularly enforced."

Reacting to their findings, Tree Board members sent a letter to Joseloff, stating: "The apparent failure of the tree warden to properly manage, safeguard and maintain the Main Street trees has cost the residents of the town an invaluable resource.

"The downtown is in perhaps the most unsightly condition the town has ever known," the letter continues.

"The Tree Board believes it is imperative that interim tree replacement planting occur this spring," the letter says. "It is inconceivable, in the opinion of the Tree Board, that town residents should have to wait seven or more years to see an improvement in the bleak, barren, desolate downtown landscape."

"The question is, `How did that really happen?' " Pamela Klomberg, the board chairwoman asked during the meeting. "Was something inappropriate done?"

"Yes," said James, who researched the matter with member Tracey Hammer.

"We thought with the public outcry," Hammer said, this request "is something they would expect of their Tree Board ... that we would try to get these trees back."

Joseloff declined to comment on the Tree Board's letter and call for town action when contacted Tuesday, saying, "I have just received the report and have not had a chance to go through it yet."

However, he added, "I have said publicly that I am not satisfied with how the Main Street tree removals were handled.

"That, along with public safety concerns, certainly contributed to my requesting additional funding in the 2013-14 budget for tree maintenance and services."

The question was raised by the board if the DMA should be fined for its actions.

"We didn't really think we saw a case there for blaming the DMA for improper behavior," Hammer said. "The tree warden seems to give them carte blanche to take down whatever tree they want ... How can we go back and fine them for something he gave them permission to do?

"So we thought, in a way, this really falls back on the town. The town didn't do a very good job. The town gave them carte blanche to take these trees down.

"A town employee did not fulfill his obligations, and there were no checks and balances," Klomberg said.

Edwards told the Westport News has met with DMA officials and is in the process of working out an arrangement to get trees replanted. "I would anticipate getting a contribution," he said, toward the cost of replanting.

Edwards said expanding the one-day-a-week tree warden position to full-time would be beneficial, as has been proposed in Joseloff's budget for 2013-14. "It's something that the town can certainly use," he said.

The board members also discussed some ideas about "re-greening" Main Street.

The question was raised about who would be responsible for tending new trees once they're planted.