Proposed bill takes aim at DOT's tree-cutting practices along CT highways

After local environmentalists and residents raised concerns about tree removal along the state’s highways, state lawmakers who represent Greenwich and Stamford proposed legislation to rein in “unnecessary tree pruning and removal” and restrict the use of “clear cutting.”

The recently proposed bill from state Sen. Alex Kasser, D-Greenwich, and state Rep. Stephen Meskers, D-Greenwich, suggests forming guidelines that would conserve urban forests and examine how the Connecticut Department of Transportation manages trees along highways and railroads.

“Any adjustments and improvements we do to clearing lines of sight, fixing drainage, repairing the roads have an impact on quality-of-life issues,” said Meskers, who represents Greenwich’s shoreline. “So I’m trying to get a comprehensive review of vegetation management.”

State Rep. Matt Blumenthal, D-Stamford and a co-sponsor of the bill, said he wants to ensure that DOT takes into account environmental and community concerns before taking down trees.

“We’d like to create, with this bill, a process by which the DOT, before it cuts down or prunes trees in any significant way, would have to engage with the community on it, so that we’re not seeing the clear-cutting that we have seen in some places,” Blumenthal said.

Another co-sponsor, state Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, said that dead trees may need to be removed for safety reasons, but he said he supports the establishment of standards for vegetation management.

“It’s OK to clear dead trees, right? But to clear the other trees that hold the ground and forest together and help with stormwater and water absorption — there are several problems that could come from that, like flooding on the road,” Michel said.

Many residents and groups including the Greenwich Tree Conservancy have lamented the tree-cutting along the Metro-North Railroad tracks and I-95 in both Greenwich and Stamford. The Tree Conservancy has also complained about tree-trimming by Eversource in the past.

Mostly recently, the Tree Conservancy zeroed in on a construction project along I-95 that is expected to begin in fall 2022. During a public information meeting last month, a consulting engineer on the project said about 2 acres of trees would be removed from along over 6.6 miles of highway from Greenwich into Stamford.

“Our approach to this is to really minimize any tree-clearing along this corridor,” said Tony Margiotta of GM2 Associates. “But we unfortunately do require some selective tree clearing to improve the site distance, for example, around the corner of a curve.”

A number of trees would also be taken down to make way for work on drainage improvements along I-95, Margiotta said. In addition, crews would remove limbs that are hanging over the highway.

Those involved in the project are “looking to incorporate vegetative buffers” in the plans, said Neil Patel from DOT.

“Of course, they have to be in coordination with our maintenance operations and where feasible,” Patel said. “So we will be looking at that as we go forward with our design.”

JoAnn Messina, executive director of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, said the combination of past events and the plans for I-95 has prompted the group to press for “legislation to control DOT.”

The Tree Conservancy has proposed language for the bill, which has been referred to the Joint Committee on Environment. In sum, the group wants a group of forestry experts to develop guidelines for vegetation management that DOT would be required to follow, Messina said.

“And then we generally would like to get into a situation where Connecticut DOT, for lack of a better way to say it, pays attention to many of the climate change suggestions that have come from” Gov. Ned Lamont’s Council on Climate Change, she said.

“Everything you read, trees are what is going to help with climate change, and here you have an arm of our state government just clear-cutting, cutting down all of our trees that can assist,” Messina said.

“We don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. We can have trees along roadways — which help with flooding, which help with carbon sequestration, which help with all of the things, all the benefits that trees give — as well as having safe railways and roadways,” she said.

The Riverside Association, a neighborhood group in Greenwich, has also complained that the plans for the I-95 project lack proposals for noise barriers — which Meskers said he is also monitoring.

Meskers said he believes the vegetation management bill would resonate with some of his colleagues. In the meantime, he has been part of conversations with Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo, the I-95 project managers and state Transportation Commissioner Joseph Giulietti about the issue.

“I think just the proposal of the bill, and the concern that we’ve expressed at the municipal level, and through our representatives — I’ve been impressed so far with the speed of a response that I’m comfortable that our concerns have been heard,” Meskers said. “And I’m awaiting further dialogue to address and solve the outstanding issues.”

The proposed bill’s other co-sponsors include Reps. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich; Harry Arora, R-Greenwich; Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden; and Josh Elliott, D-Hamden.