No trees means Main Street holiday 'zigzag' lights lack dazzle

Zesty. Zigzagging. Zapped.

Call it what you will, the downtown holiday lighting display on Main Street has an entirely new look this year. And the reason for that is, at least in part, is the changed streetscape.

After most of the trees that lined the south end of Main Street were cut down last year -- in years past, the trees had been decked with lights -- the Downtown Merchants Association opted instead for zigzaging strings of lights overhead, from the Post Road up to Elm Street.

"What we wanted to do -- our goal -- is we wanted to have lights actually on the perimeters of the buildings," DMA President Steven Desloge said. But because of delays in obtaining permission from Main Street landlords, he said, "We were not able to make that materialize, so this was the best we could do."

The lack of trees to allow for a more robust holiday lighting display also has raised the question of if -- and when -- new trees may be planted in place of those that were cut down.

"During our campaign we spoke with many residents," said recently elected Selectman Avi Kaner, and one of the issues that kept coming up was the look and feel of Main Street -- "and how this is not the same beautiful Main Street that Westporters have been accustomed to."

"When you look at the holiday lights that are strung up now ... the reason that they're strung up that way is because there are no trees to put them up on," Kaner said.

Kaner has been a vocal proponent of getting new trees planted soon, regardless of the recommendations that may be forthcoming from a master plan for downtown that is being prepared. In a fall campaign forum, he likened Westport's Main Street to the Stamford Mall, and cited Ridgefield's Main Street as an example of a pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing downtown that Westport may want to emulate.

"This is something that we must do and we must do it right away," he said of tree replanting," calling it low-hanging fruit that could be addressed separately from any long-term recommendations for downtown enhancements.

"We'll have to go to the Downtown Merchants Association and try to work out an arrangement with them to either pay in full or partially for the restoration of the re-creating of Main Street," Kaner said, emphasizing that he hopes it would be a collaborative process. "I'd rather not have to go the Board of Finance for a special appropriation if I don't have to, but I view that as a high priority."

He replanting trees along Main Street would not only improve aesthetics, but would make it a more inviting atmosphere for shoppers.

Desloge said, however, that the DMA funds are limited, but added the merchant group next month plans to announce a new project to help improve Main Street.

"At this point we have not allocated any funds for putting in new trees," he said.

"I understand the trees are an issue and I understand they never wanted them cut down," Desloge said. "Most of them were not living, and in time there will be new trees on Main Street ... It's a matter of getting everything aligned before we do it."

He cited development of the downtown master plan, as well as a newly hired tree warden, Bruce Lindsay, as other factors in that effort.

Desloge also said the nearly $500,000 Main Street Investment Fund grant the town received in July might be used for replanting trees. But according to Stephen Edwards, director of the Department of Public Works, that money cannot be used for tree planting.

Tree Board Chairwoman Pamela Klombergsaid she wanted to be sure that when new trees were planted, it will be done properly so they would flourish.

"The question to exactly when and how that's conducted is still evolving," she said.

Klomberg pointed out, however, that the practice of stringing lights on trees -- at least as it has been done in Westport -- may pose a problem to trees' well-being.

"I think it's important that that practice be looked at carefully and that we do things ... using best practices," she said.

Klomberg said that state law actually prohibits public trees being pierced with nails, which she said had been done extensively to trees on Main Street. "Not only are they pierced in many places, but they're pierced by these nail-like objects which really are not beneficial to the trees health or longevity," she said.

Further, she said, "Each tree actually has an electrical box screwed into the trunk, so these living objects have kind of become like electrified lamps, and I don't know if that's in the best interest of the trees."