Darien residents share concerns with Eversource over proposed tree removal

Photo of Katrina Koerting
File photo of Sean Redding, manager of vegetation management with Eversource, explaining the dangers of arcing and why the utility had to do emergency tree pruning in Darien.

File photo of Sean Redding, manager of vegetation management with Eversource, explaining the dangers of arcing and why the utility had to do emergency tree pruning in Darien.

Jarret Liotta / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — Residents are worried Eversource’s plan to remove trees will create environmental and safety concerns, while officials for the company said the proposed clear-cutting better protects the power lines and area.

Eversource presented its vegetation management plan for the 18-mile corridor along its transmission lines, emphasizing the 3.5 miles that travel through Darien, at a public information meeting Wednesday night. The entire plan also includes Greenwich, Stamford, Norwalk and Westport.

“We require ample distance between the line and the vegetation so the line can be safe and reliable,” said Sean Redding, Eversource’s head of vegetation management.

Under the plan, Eversource will remove “incompatible trees” — trees that interfere with the transmission lines and are generally at least 15 feet tall at maturity. Some smaller trees might also have to be removed to get to those larger trees, he said.

The bulk of the work will happen on property owned by the state Department of Transportation, though Eversource might also have to remove trees in easements on private or town properties or within town rights of way, Redding said.

He said the trees selected are near the transmission lines, which carry high voltage, and create a bigger risk of electricity jumping to overhanging trees and catching foliage on fire. There is also a bigger service problem if a tree falls on a line because it could take power out to an entire section of town, including critical things, like hospitals and trains, that rely on it, he said.

The project is also to ensure the workers’ safety and help them better see the line, Redding said.

The number of trees that will be removed for certain streets is available but not for the total project.

Residents were upset there wasn’t an exact number available so they could get a better idea of what the area will look like when the trees are removed. They called for more transparency.

Michelle Ford, an environmental specialist with Eversource, said they don’t count trees overall because the definition differs among different groups and not all trees are equal in size.

One of the biggest critiques from residents was that the plan removed more trees than would be offset with the company’s replanting protocols.

They also said the plan did not take into account the environmental benefits of the trees, from screening the railroad tracks and reducing noise pollution to keeping the neighborhood cool. They also said trees offer physical and mental health benefits.

“The replacement plan needs to be significantly beefed up,” said resident Allie Costanzo. “If you’re taking down 1,000 trees, you’ll have to plant more than 90.”

Residents and elected officials also said they worried that not having the trees would make the railroad tracks more tempting — and therefore more dangerous — for the children who play in the neighborhood.

“We have identified our concerns over safety,” First Selectwoman Jayme Stevenson said. “We’ve done multiple site visits.”

Representatives of the state Department of Transportation said they would also look at the railroad to see what is needed to make the tracks safer, adding it wouldn’t be possible to fence the entire corridor.

Residents questioned why specific trees were slated for removal when some of the trees not tagged were just as tall. The plan does remove certain invasive plants, and they said leaving invasive species in place will prevent the new plants from taking root.

Some residents proposed spreading the tree work out over several years so they weren’t all clearcut at the same time.

“We’re just looking for a compromise,” resident Kip Morgan said.

Redding said Eversource’s plan is to remove the trees once while the equipment was on site and the compromise was the mitigation plantings, such as the shrubs and other vegetation they were replacing the trees with.

The shift to clear cutting over removing the tops of the trees happened a few years ago, he said, adding the tops were growing back bigger and looser, creating more of a risk of branches falling.

He said the company has also offered screen planting for the homeowners by the state Department of Transportation site. He said the lines by the railroad tracks offer more challenges in what can go there.

Ford said the plantings will still offer habitat to the wildlife and removing the risk of the tree catching on fire was also helping the animals that live there. She said doing the work at once also reduces the carbon emissions the heavy equipment emit because they wouldn’t have to go there so often.

“It just shifts that ecosystem that’s more compatible with the right of way,” she said.

The plan will now go to a public hearing slated for Sept. 21 before the tree warden makes a decision, which should be done up to three days later. If there are no appeals, then the work can begin.

Redding said they plan to do the replanting in the spring when the plants have a better chance of surviving.