Sweetgum trees along Third Street and Cedar Avenue were scheduled for removal to make way for a walking path along the perimeter of the Community Center Fields. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
Fair Haven’s elected officials faced a storm of criticism by residents Monday night over a plan to cut down 10 mature trees alongside the borough’s main ballfields.
By the end of the semimonthly council meeting, the governing body had decided to put the plan on hold and “go back to square one,” in the words of Mayor Ben Lucarelli.
The plan, which came to widespread attention in recent days and was scheduled to begin August 15, called for removal of the sweetgum trees, which line Third Street and Cedar Avenue, to clear the way for a cinder walking path and other improvements around the Community Center Ballfields. The trees, some of which are 50 feet tall, were to be replaced by a dozen saplings.
Outraged homeowners in the area complained they’d gotten no notice of the plan, whose details had not been made generally known as it made its way through committees toward a funding vote. Even the Shade Tree Commission was caught off guard, said two members of that advisory group.
The trees, said neighbors, provide shad for parents and siblings of ballplayers watching games on the fields, they said.
“They’re the only trees in that park,” said STC member Stephen Trudel.
Borough Administrator Theresa Casagrande said the trees were earmarked for removal in part because “the root systems have had a lot a wash-out” of soil, and because of the danger posed by the spiky balls that drop from them each year, making for unsure footing.
Removal would also allow for the creation of access to the planned path that complies with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, she said. A fence deemed unsafe by the borough engineer would also be removed under the $47,000 project, according to the minutes of the March 27 council meeting.
“We need to regrade” in order to create barrier-free access, said Lucarelli. The tree removal “is a shock, yes, but there’s no way we can get from here to there and maintain the trees.”
But the root system “actually supports the hill” that spectators stand on to watch games, Trudel told the council.
“Perhaps there could be co-existence between the trees and the new walkway,” he said. “I think this needs more thought.”
Elizabeth O’Neill, also of Third Street, told the council that cutting down the trees was indicative of a “disposable society,” one that failed to take into account the impact of tree shade in cutting electricity bills, and of the seed that the trees provided for birds and squirrels to feed on.
“I’m sick over it,” she said of the plan.
A number of speakers in the audience complained about a lack of transparency about the project.
“Most of these people are upset because it seems like this was just thrust at them,” said Dave Becker, another STC member.
After telling the unusually large crowd that nothing could be done, Lucarelli changed course.
“We’re going to take a breath,” he said. “We’re going to step back. We don’t know whether we’re going to save the trees or not, but we’re going to go back to the drawing board.”
He urged residents to attend the recreation committee meeting, scheduled for Tuesday night, and the August 21 council meeting to give their input.