Canton to seek engineering services for West Mountain intersection at Cherry Brook
Stated goal is to improve safety, while 'hopefully' preserving historic Sycamore
Editor’s Note: The town’s decision to seek engineering services for this intersection came after our April 7 paper went to press. In light of that, we are updating this electronic version, but were unable to do so in print. We apologize for any confusion.
By John Fitts
CANTON – The town has decided to explore further options for West Mountain Road after the proposed removal of a historic Sycamore in the road generated intense public resistance.
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 to a removal notice on the tree. The action prompted strong reactions from residents. Many took to social media and others almost immediately placed “Save this tree” signs on the tree, which according to research done by Lans Perry, dates back to circa 1840. While some supported removing the tree, the vast majority objected to removal of it.
Formal objections (it would only take one) forced the issue to public hearing but on April 4, First Selectman Bob Bessel alerted residents that the town had canceled the hearing and would instead secure engineering services to explore options for the intersection.
“In an attempt to balance the Town’s interest in public safety at the intersection of Cherry Brook and West Mountain Roads with the public interest in preserving the sycamore in the middle of this intersection, the Town will seek an engineer to provide design options that would improve safety and hopefully preserve the tree,” he wrote in a message to residents Tuesday. “Until additional options can be reviewed and presented to the Town, the tree will not be removed. In light of this change, the Town has canceled the public hearing scheduled for April 11.”
Town officials noted that at least 120 people had sent emails about the issue.
“I’ve gotten more email on this issue than any other since I’ve been in office,” said Bessel, who was elected in November of 2019, adding that he’s received nothing on other current issues, such as the budget.
Bessel said a Request for Proposal (RFP) for engineering services would go out soon. The scope is being worked out now and the Board of Selectmen will review that at its April 12 meeting.
“We’ll brief the Board of Selectmen next week, get the RFP out and then see what bids come in, select one, and then give them time to study the situation, come up with their analysis and then provide options for dealing with the safety issues, which are definitely there, and the public’s desire to preserve the tree,” he said on April 5. “We’d have an independent engineer to lay out a range of options to say here are ways we can balance these two needs – safety and preservation.”
Bessel noted that the services will cost money and said unspent money in the town’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds would provide one way of funding it. The cost of the services will not be known until the bids are in.
However, when the Board of Selectmen meeting on April 12, they will consider an item to "Review and possibly approve the transfer of $25,000 of ARPA funding from an account entitled Showers at Community Center to a new account entitled West Mountain Road and Cherry Brook Road Intersection Safety Study."
According to a town memo for the meeting, estimates indicate that the $25,000 would not cover the cost for the showers. They would also be used infrequently, the memo states.
Any work at the intersection would also cost money, of course, and Bessel also said the options could come with tradeoffs.
The recent action in regard to removal was prompted by a March 7 call from a resident, who expressed concerns about safety at the intersection. Town officials, including Richardson, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner and Chris Arciero, Canton’s police chief and legal traffic authority, according to a March 21 town memo, then discussed the issue.
According to that memo, there have been, since 2011, five “documented” accidents at the intersection where the tree “may have been a contributing factor.”
Additionally, the bus company has noted “close calls” and the fire chief said most fire vehicles avoid the intersection by going Route 44 to Indian Hill in order to avoid the “tight turn” at the intersection.
The memo also asserts that the intersection is particularly concerning for plows.
“There are additional concerns that large vehicles, particularly, with snowplow blades, exiting from West Mountain Road are extended further onto Cherry Brook Road to improve sightlines. Moreover, some large trucks turning left onto West Mountain Road do so to the left of the tree, which adds another safety concern due to the location of the tree and traffic on West Mountain Road,” the memo also states.
The state of Connecticut is scheduled to do some milling and paving in the area was willing to cut the tree, provided the town grind the stump, town officials said.
Richardson said the tree, which he estimates to be 80 feet high, is healthy.
According to a submission from Lans Perry, whose family has a long history in the area, the tree is one of many planted by Linus Barber circa 1840. Trees along Cherry Brook were plan 30 feet apart, about 8 feet off the road, he noted, providing several historical documents to back it up.
Just four remain, according to Perry’s submission.
“Linus was son of Giles and grandson of Dr. Samuel who came to our farm in 1738,” he wrote prior to the town’s decision to hire an engineer. “Linus went broke in the Panic of 1837 but by hard work recovered and got enough money together to pay a surgeon to fix his face so he could win the hand of a girl and get married. Sadly he died of iatrogenic causes at 31. It would be awful if his trees suffered a similar fate at your hands.”
Nikki Wardwell Sleath is one who shared a Facebook post about the tree after the proposal to remove it, adding “this seems like a needless matter of convenience, and this majestic tree is a unique landmark in this town.”
Wardwell Sleath added to the press that the tree has been special to her family since 2008.
“When my husband and I were first looking at houses in this town and considering moving here, we drove up Cherry Brook Road to take a look at the elementary school where our children would end up going to school,” she said. “We noticed that tree right away and both thought it cool that the town had not moved it for the sake of the convenience of the roadway. We considered it a check in the column of reasons why we liked the town as one of our options.”
Prior to the March 24 notice, the Board of Selectmen discussed the issue and Skinner referred to the memo and acknowledged that there would be some resistance to cutting it down.
“Some people would probably chain themselves to the tree to keep it from coming down because it’s been there for so long,” Skinner said.
“You know Bob I might have been one of those people,” said selectman Tim LeGeyt, a long-time Canton Center resident. “But I’ve changed my mind. I’m in favor of taking that tree down now and one of the things that changed my mind was the picture of that plow truck.... I’m reluctantly in favor of doing it, but I’m not in favor of taking the other two trees.”
The “other two trees” reference was for two sycamores north of West Mountain noted in the memo, but the town did not end up proposing their removal. Whether those two come into play with possible solutions remains to be seen.
On April 5, Bessel acknowledged that the public reaction was greater than expected and also said ideas suggested in some of the emails and calls to the town would certainly be part of the conversation.
“We don’t want to make decisions in a vacuum,” he said. “This is an issue that garnered a lot more public response than we had anticipated. People want to make their views known and have a lot of allegiance to the tree and we have to respect that.”