By Beth David, Editor
About 100 people tried to jam their way into the Banquet Room at Town Hall on Tuesday, 7/26, for a re-do of a “Neighborhood Forum” pertaining to the proposed removal of 18 trees on Green Street as part of a road reconstruction project. Residents filled the doorway and the hall to make their presence known.
The Fairhaven Board of Public Works called the meeting to discuss a roadway project on Green Street, from Washington to South Street, the first phase of a project that would eventually re-surface Green Street all the way to Fort Phoenix using state Chapter 90 funds.
Controversy arose when the trees were marked for removal with flyers a few weeks ago. Many residents said they were not aware of the plan to cut down the trees.
Public Works Superintendent Vinnie Furtado chaired the meeting, and started by saying that he wanted direct abutters to speak first and then other people. He noted that it was a “Neighborhood Forum,” not a public hearing. He said they had the “same meeting” on March 15 and it was posted with the town clerk.
He said nothing was done under the “cloak of darkness.”
He said they notified abutters by mail and answered all questions anyone asked of them and provided all documents.
“We’re trying to improve the roadway,” said Mr. Furtado, adding that Green Street is a “very important” street.
He said the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) necessitate the cutting of the trees to make the sidewalks safe to travel. The large roots of the decades old trees have pushed up sidewalks and the road.
He said after the road is dug into to create a “stable base” for the repaving, the root structures of the trees in question would be compromised and the trees would be in danger of coming down.
This is also the rationale that Town Counsel used for saying the project was exempt from the
usual legal notice requirement by the Tree Warden. That law, Chapter 87, Sections 3 & 5, requires the Tree Warden to run a legal notice in a newspaper for two weeks before any shade trees can be cut down.
Town Counsel’s letter, dated 7/7/16, says that an exception is made for trees that are a danger to the public.
Tree Warden Brian Bowcock, in an email to the Neighb News last week, stated that he knew nothing about the project until he was asked to put the notice on the trees.
He wrote, in part: “I attended the meeting in March and answered any questions that were asked regarding trees and issues raised about the road reconstruction project.”
He also stated that it was a BPW project.
“I had not heard any more about this project until I was asked to post the trees by the Public Works Department,” wrote Dr. Bowcock in the email. “I do not know if there is going to be another public hearing or when the trees are scheduled to be removed. I’m sorry I cannot answer more of your questions, but this is a Chapter 90, road reconstruction, public works project.”
Mike Carter of GCG Associates, explained the project, saying that narrowing the road was not a good option for Green Street. He said ADA requires the sidewalk to be five feet wide for most of the way, with the option to go down to three feet at certain intervals.
The crowd got a bit rowdy, with people shouting questions, and Mr. Furtado got a rise out of people when he said he would not let people talk out of order or get out of control, or the board would leave.
He said the meeting was being held, again (he stressed), as a “good faith effort.”
Mr. Carter said that a trip hazard was enough reason to have to remove the trees, according to ADA requirements.
“The goal is not to cut trees,” said Mr. Carter. “They’re beautiful trees. They have just reached the point where they are impacting the roadway, impacting the sidewalk”
He said the original plan called for planting two trees for each one taken down, but now they will plant one tree for each taken down and plant larger trees.
Mr. Carter also said that it sounds worse than it is. They are not cutting down all the trees on Green Street. Almost half are staying.
BPW chairperson Michael Ristuccia said that if there had been that many people at the meeting in March, the plan might be different. That caused another uproar as people started saying they did not know about the meeting in March.
“I don’t want to hear about March anymore,” said one man loudly.
Residents went to the meeting prepared, with written statements, written questions, specific references to the law, and visual aids of other projects.
Diane Hahn took pictures of her street with her and warned people not to believe the stories about how the project will improve the street. Her street was reconstructed with a Community Development Block Grant, and she said it “destroyed” her neighborhood. She said the trees they planted were small and designed not to grow large canopies or create shade. They were designed to stay small, under the electrical lines, and not spread out.
“We were misled,” said Ms. Hahn, adding that she went to all the meetings and still did not understand how the project would look.
“It’s horrible, she said. “Don’t let them do this to your neighborhood.”
Barbara Acksen, President of the Fairhaven Improvement Association, said the first thing the FIA did when it was created in 1883 was plant 1,083 “fine shade” trees.
She said, as an abutter, she was notified and attended the meeting in March. She said they were told there were no options, only what was being presented.
She also read from a prepared statement that outlined the requirements in Chapter 87, Sections 3 and 5 about notification for cutting down shade trees.
She said that the exceptions in the law do not apply to the trees in question. They are not a present danger.
“I, on behalf of several residents, request that the town’s tree warden, Dr. Brian Bowcock, fulfill his legal responsibility in preparing for a public hearing in the manner described and that no trees are removed until this legal requirement is met, and the public have an official hearing that is entered into the record.”
Mr. Furtado reiterated that the meeting in March and the meeting on Tuesday were not public hearings, but were “forums.”
Other residents asked if an arborist looked at the trees, if raising the sidewalks had been considered, and if just top-coating the road would save the trees.
After much wrangling and talking over each other, Mr. Ristuccia said he was inclined to kill the project. He asked if people wanted to stop it, and he got a resounding yes.
One man, however, said he wanted the road re-done and said it was “ridiculous” to kill the whole project just because they did not know how to handle the trees.
He said he definitely wanted the road resurfaced, “Because we’ve got one of the worst roads around.”
Howe Allen said it was ironic that the focus was on making room for wheelchairs, strollers and handicapped accessibility, since the BPW is so bad at clearing the snow. He said the town should care about access all year round.
He said removing shade trees will absolutely result in a reduction in property values, but doubted the town would offer tax abatements.
“This is what I do for a living,” said Mr. Allen, a real estate broker.
BPW member Robert “Hoppy” Hobson said if people on Green Street do not want the project, that the department should just take that money and use for dirt roads on West Island.
One woman said that just looking at Spring Street and some other recent projects should be warning enough for people.
“You’re ruining this town,” she said. “If we wanted to live in the city, we’d live in the city.”
Another woman said she saved for “many, many years” to be able to buy a house on Green Street. Now they would change it from what it has looked like for a hundred years.
Carol Murchie, who ran for Tree Warden in 2012, insisted that the tree warden should hold a public hearing and that he is charged with taking care of public trees, not just taking them down.
“This is your project,” she said to the BPW. “But you are not in charge of public shade trees.”
After much more back and forth, Mr. Ristuccia finally said that if people were that against it, he was inclined to stop the project.
The room exploded.
He did not, however, let it go at that.
“There’s always a way,” said Mr. Ristuccia. “It’s just a matter of finding that way.”
The BPW did enter into a contract. Mr. Furtado said they could get out of it, but it would cost the town money.
In the end, the project was officially put on hold. Town Administrator Mark Rees is going to contact some people who were in the room to represent the neighbors and the two sides will try to come to a compromise.
The BPW promised to run notices in the paper and to hold more public meetings to discuss the project.
Tree Warden Brian Bowcock was at the meeting but did not speak. No one mentioned any plans for the tree warden to hold a public hearing about taking down the 18 public shade trees.
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