John Briggs, a custodian at Yale, has lived on Colony Road for about 15 years. And in that time, he has taken a liking to taking care of the neighborhood’s trees, which he calls his “babies.”
“Colony Road is one of the last really nice streets in New Haven,” said Briggs, 71. “But now the trees are dying.”
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On Tuesday, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. vowed to improve the state of trees across the city, pledging that city workers will plant 10,000 trees over the next five years. But Briggs and his neighbors in the Beaver Hills area of New Haven said the City Hall initiative comes five years too late: a 2004 city project to improve sidewalks has since caused the neighborhood’s trees to wither and decay. Workers from City Hall and the United Illuminating Company have been trimming the limbs of the trees for years.
UI and City Hall officials said that while they want to preserve the trees, they have to cut down dead limbs keeps the neighborhoods safe.
But Beaver Hills residents said, whatever the reason, the trees are slowly dying.
“People come through with big trucks and chain saws,” a tearful Briggs said. “And now there is no more canopy.”
On Colony Road, residents can often be seen raking leaves outsides their homes or walking their dogs. The street is in the middle of the quaint Beaver Hills neighborhood, just two miles from central campus and home to many of New Haven’s oaks and elms.
Katie Thomas, 24, a Colony Road resident for the past 23 years, said the branches of several trees have been cut over the years.
“I know that there are a lot of trees and that they add many health and aesthetic benefits to the community,” Katie said. “[But] the city must balance protecting the power lines and trees.”
New Haven Parks Department Director Bob Levine said the number of trees in the city has been decreasing in recent years, partly due to city maintenance. City workers cut down about 500 trees a year and, for the last two years, only planted about 400, he explained.
And five years ago, City Hall workers contributed to the decay of the trees in the neighborhood by implementing a sidewalk reconstruction program, said Ward 28 Alderman Mordechai Sandman, who represents Beaver Hills. As part of the program, city workers cut many tree roots to prevent a tripping hazard. Since then, Sandman said, the trees have lost their ability to gain sustenance; they may die within five to 20 years, he said.
Meanwhile, UI workers who come to Colony Road also cut down tree limbs when they interfere with power lines, “butchering an entire area,” as Sandman put it.
UI spokeswoman Anita Steeves said the company trims trees for maintenance, construction projects and storm damage repair. She added that workers partner with officials from the Parks Department and Yale to assess the need for trimming trees.
“We have to keep the lights on. People lose electricity when trees cut into wires,” Steeves said Wednesday. “We are not anti-tree … It’s a point of public safety. [But] unfortunately, people get upset when you trim their trees.”
Now city officials said they are trying to figure out how to undo the damage they have done.
Sandman hosted a public meeting at Hillhouse High School this week to voice concerns about citywide tree health. About 25 city residents attended, Sandman said, including Chief Administrative Officer Robert Smuts ’01, the second-in-command at City Hall.
And the city’s Public Works and Parks departments are working with UI and Urban Resources Initiative (a Yale-affiliated environmental organization) to lay out goals and a plan to restore the canopy of trees in New Haven. Levine said city officials are not ready to disclose details but are working to revitalize the decaying trees.
Sandman said he is working with Smuts to see that sidewalk repair no longer continues to damage the trees’ roots. He added that they may use root-preservation strategies — such as installing pliable concrete and pushing down roots beneath the sidewalk — to preserve the life of the trees in the city and in his neighborhood.
Sandman said he is in full support of DeStefano’s tree planting pledge. “Any step in the right direction is a positive step,” Sandman said.
Briggs, while raking the leaves outside his house Tuesday, said he is glad city officials are trying to maintain the neighborhood. He pointed at a neighbor’s tree, whose branches had once precariously arched over.
“I was worried that my neighbor would walk outside carrying a cup of coffee, and the overhanging heavy limb would hit his little Volvo,” Briggs said.
“What I want to see done is for the city to protect and preserve [the trees] as much as possible,” he added. “More trees should be planted as needed. But they better not ever touch the roots.”