Town: Roadway changes will improve safety, allow preservation of historic sycamore
By John Fitts
CANTON – The sycamore saga of 2023 has seemingly come to a resolution.
At an April 26 Board of Selectmen meeting, officials reported that the state Department of Transportation is willing to narrow travel lanes on Cherry Brook Road near the intersection of West Mountain Road, creating more space to alter travel lanes and other traffic markings. The additional space, combined with other visual cues, will allow the town to improve safety at the intersection while keeping the historic sycamore that sits in the middle of West Mountain Road.
The update came approximately one month after the town had first marked the tree for removal and residents subsequently fought for it to remain in place – saying it was one of those quirky, historical features that make Canton special.
“I’m grateful that a solution exists that allows us to save beautiful trees and still function within safe state traffic parameters,” said Nikki Wardwell Sleath, a Canton resident who helped spread the word about the tree. “I’m totally fine with the lanes narrowing to move slightly to the other side. The irony is that narrower lanes may mean paying a little more attention, which is all that we really expected in the first place, in order to keep the tree.”
“We are very pleased that this historic sycamore tree, which was planted by Linus Barber in the 1840s, seems to have been saved, and that town officials were receptive to the community’s outpouring of support for the tree," said Katie Kenney, who has been very active in the effort to keep the tree standing. "The current plan to modestly adjust painted lane markers instead of cutting down the tree is a sensible and inexpensive solution that will preserve the tree and I hope make what is already statistically one of the safer intersections on Cherry Brook Road even safer.”
A brief history
It was 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, that the town’s tree warden Thomas Richardson posted to a removal notice on the tree. In a report prompted by a complaint about the tree, the town noted line of site issues, accidents that had occurred at the site, as well as challenges for emergency vehicles, school buses and snowplows in navigating and/or avoiding the intersection.
The action prompted strong reactions from residents, whose objections forced a public hearing. However, the town subsequently decided to remove the notice and cancel the hearing and instead consider transferring $25,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding set aside for showers at the community center (which is used as an emergency shelter) – for a study of the intersection.
Concurrent to some of those actions, residents continued to discuss the issue. Social media posts were numerous. On some days, pages devoted to town discussion and issues were filled with dozens of posts and updates.
But action went well beyond online opinion. At least two attorneys in town filed Freedom of Information requests on the issue and resident Lans Perry, whose family has a long history in Canton Center, even hired a traffic engineer at F.A. Hesketh and Associates to study the intersection.
When it met on April 12, the Board of Selectmen continued to hear from residents during the public comment period. Many objected to the transfer of funds, with several asserting it was a solution for a problem that didn’t exist.
Selectmen and Police Chief Christopher Arciero discussed traffic data and the board eventually tabled the discussion, so town staff could continue to explore solutions. One idea was to have the town contract F.A. Hesketh and Associates to see if it could build on the work done for Perry. Some selectmen felt that could potentially cost much less than the $25,000.
April 26 meeting
After hearing from several more residents on April 26, Canton Chief Administrative Officer Robert Skinner told selectmen that three productive meetings had taken place since the April 12 meeting.
First was one with traffic engineer Scott Hesketh, who reviewed several options with the town. He, like others, also noted that the state’s clearing along Route 179 had already improved sightlines when along the road to the south of West Mountain Road.
“[Scott Hesketh] was helpful,” Skinner said. “He was very gracious and we appreciated information he gave us and his time.”
On April 21, a handful of town officials again went to the site to take some measurements at the intersection and discuss whether the stop bar on West Mountain Road could be moved back or forward to improve sightlines.
On April 24, several town officials and staff returned to the site with engineers from the state Department of Transportation.
Several ideas were discussed – including one built on conversations with Hesketh – about the possibility of “moving” Cherry Brook over to the west.
In practical terms that would be difficult due to topography and other issues, but the DOT said that the roadway lanes, currently at 11 ½ and 12 feet, could be narrowed to 11 feet. That would allow the center and white shoulder lines on Cherry Brook Road to be moved over – along with the stop line on West Mountain.
“If you were to shorten up the lanes to 11 feet, you would actually gain some distance and looking at that – they could effectively move Cherry Brook over 1 ½ to two feet,” Skinner said. As you can come to the intersection, the white line at the shoulder line would be moved out and over so people following it would obviously move out further away from the tree, so we’d move the traffic further away from the tree.”
Additionally – at the intersection - the state can use alternating paint lines – known as cat tracks – to provide another visual cue, Skinner said.
Another suggestion by the DOT, he added, was to create a type of teardrop island around the tree. While level with the roadway, it would begin with a thinner border behind it and a wider one near Cherry Brook. It could even include reflectors and would give additional visual clues to drivers on both roads.
“It would give people the indication they’re coming up on the tree,” Skinner said. “More importantly, it would give the person as they pull out beside the tree how far they can pull out before they’re in the line of traffic.”
Clearing a little more pavement around the Sycamore could also benefit the tree, officials said.
Selectmen had questions but reacted positively to the proposal.
“I want to thank you for all the effort you and the town staff have put into this – to research this thing thoroughly and to find ways to preserve the tree and save money at the same time,” First Selectman Robert Bessel said to Skinner.
Selectmen then discussed denying the motion they had made, tabled and brought back up – meaning they would not move the $25,000. (In fact, later in the meeting Bessel noted the town is hoping to get some grants that would free up more ARPA funding in the hopes of adding to the showers account)
“I’d like to suggest we deny that motion, because it doesn’t seem to be necessary right now,” Tim LeGeyt said.
Selectman Bill Volovski, who had already opposed the funding plan on April 12, concurred.
“The people have spoken and the vast majority of the people we’ve heard from don’t feel there’s a problem or a safety issue with the tree,” he said, adding that he felt the showers was an important project that might only get done with ARPA funds.
While the sycamore might be saved, controversial aspects still remain. At the April 26 meeting, Skinner presented Cherry Brook Road accident data from Police Chief Chris Arciero. It detailed accidents that had occurred on the road since 2011 – breaking down which involved crashes that had actually occurred at intersections versus those for which officers just noted the nearest intersection on reports.
It stated that the accident total was 172 with 18 taking place at intersections. According to the report 6 of those intersection accidents were at West Simsbury Road (Route 309) and 5 at West Mountain Road. The next highest was Wright Road at 3 and the rest were at 1 or 0. (The Route 44 and Cherry Brook Road intersection was not included in the data as officials noted that was a much busier area).
While Bessel has defended the data, the information was met with skepticism by some attending at the meeting, as some residents had previously presented data they asserted showed additional intersections along Route 179 with higher accident numbers than West Mountain.
Another point of some debate is the age of the tree. A submission from Perry asserted that Linus Barber (sometimes spelled Barbour) planted the tree in 1840. Some have suggested a plaque at the tree in honor of Barber.
At the meeting, Marianne Humphrey Burbank, a member of the Canton Center Historic District Commission, said the commission is planning to discuss the idea of a plaque and she told selectmen to consider that and suggested that perhaps a local garden club would be willing to add plantings around the tree.
“I’d like you all to consider that fact when you are considering the recommendations regarding saving the tree because I know you all want to save the tree,” she said.
At the meeting, LeGeyt said he has looked at records and does not believe the tree is that old.
“I don’t think it’s 180 years old. It doesn’t look big... I looked at references that Lans had and I don’t think the tree was planted by Linus Barber,” LeGeyt said. “I’m glad to have some historical reference to the tree put up there but I don’t think it should reference that age or Linus Barber.”
Perry said he is a state licensed forester and expert on trees and forest dynamics. He is standing by the assertion that the tree is circa 1840. A message Perry sent to the Valley Press regarding the issue referenced other historic trees in the area and stated in part, “The sycamores in question and an associated white pine are within the diameter range one would expect for trees planted in 1840 given their growing site conditions and local resource competitors.”
At the meeting, LeGeyt said he was glad the tree was being saved but also expressed some ongoing concern about large vehicles navigating the intersection.
Officials noted that widening West Mountain Road could be challenging, especially give the proximity of wetlands, slopes and - to the north – two more of the older, historic sycamores.
Regardless of those ongoing issues, and some community assertions that residents need to be more involved in the process of town government – many have positively reacted to the sycamore solution. Selectmen directed Bessel to formally request the changes to the Cherry Brook Road - as the DOT plans to repave the road this year. (The DOT media team did not immediately respond to a press inquiry from the Valley Press about the issue).
The work on the island around the tree itself would likely fall to the town but Skinner said he believes that could be funded under the town’s pavement management program.
The tree has certainly been a persistent issue and Bessel said he estimates that upwards of 200 people have emailed the town about it.
“I credit the public for speaking up and saying this tree’s important. It’s important enough for us to weigh in,” said Bessel, who was elected to the position in 2019. “I’ve said it before; I’ve never received more email on any other issue than I have for the sycamore tree on West Mountain Road.”