City Officials Press For an Inventory of Stamford’s Urban Forest

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It’s a nudge out onto a limb.

But it’s for trees.

So city officials hope the mayor’s office will respond to their early call for money in the 2023-24 budget to plant, maintain and inventory Stamford’s urban forest.

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Budget season doesn’t begin for a few months, but members of the Board of Representatives’ Operations Committee Monday passed a resolution asking that the administration fund a Geographic Information System survey of all trees on city property, a water tank truck, new plantings, and an additional parks employee to manage public trees.

Stamford’s tree warden, parks planner, Land Use Bureau chief, and leaders of the downtown district joined city representatives in making the request. 

“This is a proactive step in letting the administration know … that this board would like to invest more money in trees,” said city Rep. Nina Sherwood, who submitted the resolution along with fellow representatives Ines Saftic and Virgil de la Cruz.

“Taking this approach sends a signal early in the budget process to advocate for things you want to see, rather than just cut things you don’t want to see at the end of the budget process,” which is the board’s usual role, said David Kooris, president of the Downtown Special Services District.

The DSSD just completed a tree inventory of the central business district, Kooris said.

“The inventory gives us a blueprint” of the condition of existing trees and places to plant new trees, Kooris said. It does the same for the pits where trees are planted in walkways, he said. Some pits are ready for replanting, and others are trip hazards that must be repaired or replaced first. 

“It gives clear recommendations about the species that should be planted, and planting locations, so we can invest our money most strategically to get the best results,” Kooris said. 

That has to happen citywide, said city Rep. Elise Coleman, whose district is affected by an asphalt plant, a stone yard, a stretch of Interstate 95, and other air pollution sources.

“I had the state come down to look at our air quality … I asked them if they could put trees in to block all the dirt in the air,” Coleman said. “Please think about the East Side, the West Side and the South End when you talk about this resolution. I know some of the downtown sidewalks are dangerous to walk on, but don’t take away from the people who are breathing this air and could benefit from the trees.”

Growing support for trees

Knowledge of the benefits provided by trees is blossoming across the country as heat waves, drought, storms, wildfires and floods intensify with the effects of climate change.

According to an article published in August by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a global nonprofit organization that seeks to improve public policy through research and analysis, cities are embracing trees as a solution.

The Pew article was written shortly after President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $1.5 billion for the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, according to Pew. Advocates say the money could transform the program, now funded at $36 million, into a major source of nationwide tree planting and maintenance.

City planners are focusing on urban forestry as an effective, affordable way to make gains against the enormous problem of climate change, Pew reports.

The movement isn’t lost on the Stamford Board of Representatives.

The board resolution says representatives recognize that “trees are a valuable natural resource and a major capital asset that provide aesthetic, economic, ecological, environmental and health benefits.”

The loss of trees results in increased costs to control drainage and soil erosion, and to remove sedimentation from waterways, it states. 

More concrete and fewer trees reduces the amount of rain that seeps through soil to resupply groundwater; diminishes air quality; increases dust; shrinks wildlife habitat; and harms the city’s visual character, according to the resolution.

Loss of urban trees creates “heat islands” that harm the health, safety and well-bring of residents, it states.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, heat islands occur where highly concentrated numbers of buildings, roads and other structures absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat. Daytime temperatures in urban areas are 1 to 7 degrees higher than areas with natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies, according to the EPA. At night, temperatures in urban areas are 2 to 5 degrees higher.

For trees, a third try 

If the full board approves the resolution at its Nov. 7 meeting, it will be its third measure urging action to address the effects of global warming.

In April representatives passed a resolution recognizing a “climate emergency” and commending Mayor Caroline Simmons for creating a Climate Council. It called for measures such as improving access to public transportation to reduce vehicle dependency, requiring developers to use green building techniques for city projects, and planting more trees.

In September the board passed a related resolution advocating for a tree planting and preservation program, saying urban trees remove harmful carbon dioxide from the air and replenish oxygen in areas where it is most needed.

The latest resolution is different in that it requests money for four specific items – a tree inventory, a water truck, a new hire to do the watering, and specific plantings, Sherwood said Tuesday.

“Right now we don’t have the manpower or the resources to properly maintain the longevity of the trees we are spending taxpayer dollars to plant,” Sherwood said. 

Stamford Parks Planner Erin McKenna said during the meeting that she has tried for 10 years to get the city to fund a tree inventory.

“We have a large tree resource in Stamford, and the inventory will help us manage it for the first time,” McKenna told the committee. “It will identify all trees in city rights of way, plus the larger parks.”

There’s no counting them

Without an inventory, the number of trees on city property is unknown, said Ron Markey, the city’s landscape specialist and tree warden.

“Stamford has 380 miles of roadway. We have no idea how many city trees we have,” Markey said.

That doesn’t include the parks, he said. Besides Markey, the city employs three tree climbers, plus two seasonal workers during the summer.

City trees are hit by cars, storms, pests, drought and flooding, their roots chopped and surrounded in asphalt or concrete.

City crews plant 70 to 80 new trees a year, on average, said Kevin Murray, operations manager for parks and facilities. The survival rate for new plantings has been about 85 percent for the last few years, Murray said.

But, after last year’s fall planting, the city lost 27 of 33 oak trees to the summer drought and a lack of resources to consistently water and care for them, Murray said. The dead trees were replaced under a warranty the city has with its vendor, he said.

An inventory would be valuable because it would provide updated information crews need to care for trees, Markey said.

“When we remove a tree, when we plant a tree, we would inventory it. When a storm takes down trees, that would be recorded,” he said. “Right now we don’t have a way to keep track.”

An inventory will help the crew preserve Stamford’s historic trees, such as a pair of red oaks on Clearview Avenue near Hope Street, estimated to be 48 inches in diameter and 250 years old. 

Residents fought for the oaks several years ago when the city wanted to remove them because their roots pushed up the sidewalks.

Such trees are remarkable, Markey said.

“That’s something you find deep in the woods, not in an intense urban area,” Markey said. “It’s amazing. You just don’t see it.”

Saplings too costly to die

McKenna said the city would hire an inventory company that would send an arborist to every city tree to geo-locate it, photograph it, and record the species, size and condition. Her office will request $250,000 for the work in the next budget, she said.

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said during the meeting that his office is using zoning regulations to replace trees lost to development.

“We introduced a tree planting requirement for street trees for all new developments, and we have a fee-in-lieu fund for when it’s not possible for trees to be replanted,” Blessing said.

That fund has $20,000 to $30,000 in it. Combined with anything Simmons will include in the 2023-24 budget, it could “make a big difference in making Stamford greener,” Blessing said.

The system now isn’t working, Sherwood said.

“We spend $700 to buy and plant a new tree, but we have no way to water them because we don’t have a truck. We end up begging residents to water them,” Sherwood said. “Trees are dying. Do we sit around and wait for the mayor to hopefully put this in the budget, as we have done in the past, or do we really want to make a statement about trees?”

City Rep. David Watkins, the only abstention in the otherwise unanimous committee vote supporting the resolution, said he has misgivings about “getting in front of a budget and giving the mayor our views as to what decisions she should make.”

That approach “can come back to bite us,” Watkins said.

“If the board goes down a path of picking and choosing which topics we like to put a resolution out about …  why wouldn’t we do it for a noise ordinance? Or parks police, which is another huge topic?” Watkins said. “I think it would be the start of an unhappy process that will bury us with residents and department heads who want to get us on their side beforehand.” 

It’s a valid misgiving, city Rep. Sean Boeger said, but trees are a special concern.

“This is a way to envision the largest things we want to support, with a larger voice,” Boeger said. “Let’s try it. We’re not setting a precedent. If we don’t like it, we’ll stop it.”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com