Canton selectmen debating next steps for West Mountain sycamore
By Paul Palmer
CANTON – Town residents have won half the battle in their fight to save a sycamore tree that sits in the middle of West Mountain Road at the intersection of Cherry Brook Road.
The Town had wanted to cut down the tree - estimated at 180-years old as officials say it is a safety hazard for drivers. However, the plan was put on hold after a groundswell of opposition.
Those that want the tree preserved have gone so far as to hire their own traffic engineer to prove it is not a hazard, and some have even said that if plans go forward to remove the tree, they will sue the Town of Canton to preserve it. For now, the tree will stand, but there are still more branches to climb until a final decision on the tree’s fate is made.
“We have gotten upwards of 200 emails to this point sent to the Board of Selectmen on the sycamore,” said First Selectman Bob Bessel.
Resident Lans Perry hired F.A. Hesketh and Associates to perform a survey of the site and determine if the tree did or did not pose a safety hazard to traffic at the intersection. It found that ‘based on all of the relevant information it appears it is not necessary to remove the tree at this time. Sufficient Intersection Sight Distance (SID) is available behind, between and in front of the trees,” the report concluded. There are two other sycamores that stand north of the intersection, but off the roadway itself. At a recent Selectmen’s meeting, Perry argued that the Board needed to listen to the wishes of the people. “We are the town,” he told the Board. “We expect to be listened to and we are prepared to litigate if needed.”
Canton officials say their only concern is safety, and the reason they began the review process is because a resident raised concerns about the intersection.
At the April 12 Board of Selectmen meeting, both the town and those that want the tree to stay put forth their findings on accidents in the area, traffic patterns, and sight lines.
“That tree is part of the character of this town and you better have a good reason to cut it down, “ Wilson Alford, Jr. of West Mountain Road told the selectmen at a recent meeting.
Peter Hess, a 40-year Canton resident lives on West Mountain Road, said he and his family use the intersection nearly every day. “My calculation is we have made 40,000 passes of that tree and have never experienced a problem getting out of there.”
Police Chief Chris Arciero was on hand at the latest Board of Selectmen meeting and presented what he said was information that would clarify how many accidents had taken place at the intersection, and how many times a driver involved cited the tree as a cause. After going back over reports of 8 crashes there since 2003, he contacted the drivers involved and said that 3 said that the tree blocked their view or caused difficulty for them to see around prior to the crash. He also cited comments from the current Chief of the Canton Volunteer Fire Department and the owner of Martel Transportation, which supplies the buses in the Canton Schools. Arciero said both had expressed some concerns with getting their larger vehicles in and out of the area with the tree standing in the road.
The initial plans to cut the tree were halted early in April after the backlash from residents.
Specifically - on March 24, following Board of Selectmen review of a town memo on safety concerns at the intersection of West Mountain and Cherry Brook roads, the town’s tree warden Thomas Richardson posted a removal notice on the tree. The action prompted strong reactions from residents, whose objections forced a public hearing. However, the town decided to remove the notice and cancel the hearing.
The Board of Selectman was then considering spending $25,000 to have their own traffic safety study done at the intersection. That money - which is part of Canton’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding – is currently allocated to adding showers to the Community Center, which serves as an emergency shelter in a time of need.
At the April 12 meeting, citizens overwhelming opposed moving the money.
“$25,000 is a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Theresa Barger of Canton said at the meeting. “There are better ways for it to be spent.”
Town businessperson and resident Lisa Newell called the proposal to spend the $25,000 “a solution looking for a problem.”
“To consider spending $25,000 to study a problem that is not a problem is unbelievable,” Newell told the selectmen.
Selectmen had a fairly lengthy discussion on whether to allot the funding.
“I oppose the motion,” said Selectman Bill Volovski. “I don’t want to transfer money from a project we already think is needed.”
Selectman Scott Sedor questioned why the Board would want to spend money on a survey, when they have been handed one by a firm that has a strong reputation. “Only a few solutions could be offered and we know what they will be,” Sedor said. “Why are we going to spend money when we know the options?”
With further discussion, however, Sedor expressed potential support.
Other town officials said they supported allocating the money, because they would like to find a way to save the tree and keep people safe.
“I personally think there is a value to a traffic study,” Chief Arciero said.
“We are looking for options to create a safe intersection and keep the tree,” said Bessel.
In addition to the safety issue, Bessel asked what the town’s liability would be if the tree stayed and there was an accident and the driver cited the tree as the reason for the crash. Attorney Nick Ouellette, who is representing a group that wants to save the tree, was asked his opinion on where the town might stand.
“The town would be covered by insurance,” he said. He also told them that since the town had never made a determination that the tree must come down, it is extremely likely a jury would find that the tree staying was reasonable.
In the end, the selectmen tabled the motion to approve transferring the funds to the traffic study and instead agreed to a plan put forth by the Town’s Chief Administration Bob Skinner. He said he would contact Hesketh and ask if it would agree to work for the town in offering solutions that could be presented to the Selectmen and voters.
Bessel added that since Hesketh had already studied the intersection, he hoped the town would not have to spend the full $25,000 on Skinner’s idea.
Skinner hopes to have more information regarding Hesketh’s willingness to do the work and will present the findings at the next Board of Selectmen meeting on April 26.
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