Sidewalk Project on Ferry Road in Old Lyme to Take Down Adjacent Trees

OLD LYME — Twelve trees along Ferry Road from Lyme St. to Rt. 156 have been tagged for potential removal — with some to be replaced — to accommodate the town’s construction of new, wider sidewalks.

The root systems of a number of Norway Maples and Zelcovas, as well as other tree species, have caused portions of the sidewalk to buckle over time, which has created a safety hazard according to First Selectman Tim Griswold. At three feet in width, the sidewalk also does not meet the four-foot standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On a site walk set up by the Tree Commission on Monday afternoon, Wade Thomas, a civil engineer with Nathan L. Jacobson and Associates, distributed a list of trees that had been evaluated by Landscape Architectural Design Associates, with recommendations for removal, replacement, pruning, or replanting. 

Tom Degnan, tree warden for the town and a licensed arborist, said the problem is that root systems of the trees will be damaged by the excavation needed to construct the sidewalks. 

“Most root systems of trees want to be in the top foot of the earth, that’s where all the nutrients in the soil — the air and oxygen, the nutrients, that’s where the water is. All of the roots exist within about 15 to 17 inches of the surface,” he said. “To construct a sidewalk, it’s 16 inches of excavation to go down to provide the proper amount of material compacted and built back up for 5 inches of concrete, so it’s about 16 inches of total disturbance — the entire root system of this tree is in that top 16 inches.” 

Instead of growing under the road, the root systems of the trees located between the sidewalk and the road grow under the sidewalk and underneath the lawns adjacent to the sidewalk.

He said the construction will cut off the available root system that feeds the tree, eventually killing the tree and that it was a better long-term decision to remove the tree and replace it with a species suited to the location in terms of expected size and shape as well as root structure. 

Ferry Road location in Old Lyme (Credit: Google Map Data, 2021)

“What you’ve seen around construction sites is you make a lot of effort to protect a tree, not realizing that that root system goes out so far and that a year later it dies and you have expenses associated with it,” he said. “The thing to do is deal with it during the project and put the right tree back in here and start anew.” 

One of the Norway Maples in particular was showing signs of a decline in health, which raised the issue of the cost effectiveness of keeping trees alive toward the end of their life cycle. 

“What I can tell you is I look up into this tree and I do see some die-back in the upper crown, which is telling me it’s got some stress. It doesn’t mean it’s going to die right away, it means it’s got some problems,” he said. “What we do in town is we look at these trees and we will try to prune them and take care of them for a period of time until maybe it reaches such a point where we say, you know what, we’ve been putting so much money into it and it’s not working …You make a different decision on every single tree.”

One tree, a Hornbeam planted by the Tree Commission, is  on the list slated for removal during construction and replanting when the project is finished. 

Joanne DiCamillo, chair of the Tree Commission, questioned whether alternative materials and processes — raising the sidewalks above the tree roots, for example — were available to save the trees.

Thomas said an elevated concrete boardwalk with a decking treatment could be used for portions of the sidewalk, but the installation cost was high and regular maintenance would be needed to keep the structure clear of leaves and small animals.

If the sidewalks were built to curve around the trees, property easements would be needed from homeowners to allow the sidewalk to encroach onto private property. 

Since September, the project has been on the agendas of the Historic District Commission and the Tree Commission, but few homeowners on Ferry Road seemed to know about the project on Tuesday afternoon when contacted by CT Examiner. 

Martha Hansen, who is secretary of both commissions, said removing the trees was going to be “very unpopular” and that she supported having a meeting with homeowners along Ferry Road. 

“People are not going to be happy with that, but it is a way to get it right going forward and to plant trees that are better suited to the location,” she said.

The Historic District Commission has approved the plan with reservations, Hansen said, depending on what the Tree Commission decides. 

In November 2020, the town was approved for a Small Town Economic Assistance Program grant totalling $150,000 — $126,000 from the state and $24,000 from the town — to replace about 1,000 feet of sidewalk along Ferry Road. The project was part of the proposed 2020-2021 capital plan for the town. Since 2005, the town has been approved for five STEAP grant projects totalling $1.47 million excluding the town match.

Hansen said the site walk was informative concerning the impact of the sidewalk project on the health of the trees, but it didn’t make the decision any easier. 

“Nothing was really decided yesterday, it was just a lot of question and answer and a lot of realization that the most practical thing to do is take all the trees down and do the project, fix the sidewalk and replant,” she said. “Also acknowledging that a lot of people are not going to be happy with that. You have to take people’s feelings into consideration. It’s their neighborhood and the town does not want to just make decisions without consulting a lot of different people.”

The sidewalk project will be discussed at the next Tree Commission meeting, to be held virtually on February 18.

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