The Select Board this week voted to move forward with plans for the Chelmsford-North Roads redesign and sidewalk project, still holding out hope that at least one of the venerable trees to be sacrificed in the process can be saved.
The tree removal is built into a project that has been developing for several years: realigning the intersection of North and Chelmsford Roads, and adding a sidewalk on the east side of North and Chelmsford Roads between Sweetwater Avenue and Isabella Lane.
“We all struggle with these tradeoffs. We recognize that everyone who has been involved all along has been looking for ways to minimize the loss of trees,” said Select Board Chair Margot Fleischman. “But ultimately I don’t want us to miss this opportunity to do this with integrity.”
The project encompasses the removal of 53 public and 80 privately-owned trees. The Department of Public Works and the Bedford Arbor Resources Committee (BARC) have collaborated for the past year to ensure that the project is consistent with the town tree policy, particularly the planting of replacement trees and a monetary deposit into a special fund.
But at a tree warden’s statutory hearing last week, several speakers, some of them BARC members, appealed on behalf of a few of the oldest trees. They say at least two are more than 200 years old. State law provides that if there are objections in writing, the outcome of the hearing rests with the Select Board.
“This is priority for the town,” DPW Director David Manugian said, and a 2022 Select Board goal. Final design was chosen a year-and-a-half ago, he said, and BARC has been part of the process for about a year. “We are trying to balance the concerns of individuals as well as the overall interests of the town.”
One of the trees – an oak outside of 421 North Road – “we are going to do everything in our power to save, said Manugian, noting that talks are continuing with the property owner about a meandering sidewalk that could circumvent the tree via an easement.
But he added that there are no prospects for similar arrangements that could salvage up to five additional trees that were of particular interest because of their size and age.
Still, noted Town Manager Sarah Stanton, the final determination will be made when town officials inspect the site with the contractor several months from now. “We walk the length of the project with the contractor to see if there are any other opportunities,” Manugian said.
Select Board member William Moonan pressed the issue of the sidewalks, asking if they were required. “Sidewalks have been part of the design from the beginning of the project,” Manugian said. Moonan asked if the sidewalk width can vary to accommodate a tree. The design is based on state and federal accessibility codes, the director said, and the intent is to provide “meaningful continuous access” for “a variety of different users.” Eighty percent accessibility might as well be zero for someone in a wheelchair,” he said.
Board member Edward Pierce inquired if the road could be slightly shifted when encountering one of the trees. Manugian said engineers determined that “small adjustments” are being made in some cases, but others are precluded by drainage, pitch, or safety considerations.
“We did the best we could,” Manugian said. “The ones we were able to save have been saved. We work closely with abutters and we try to come up with a plan that is respectful of private property rights while achieving our goals.”
He stressed that abutting property owners have made many donations from their land to accommodate grading, drainage, and other work on the intersection design. “The residents have worked with us and we have developed relationships.”
All of the advocates for saving the trees testified – or attempted to participate – in the formal hearing conducted by the tree warden last week. Dan Churella, BARC chair, said he submitted written comments – which kicked the hearing over to the Select Board.
Bob McClatchey, a former School Committee member, stated, “Let’s not cut all those large trees. And if that means not having a sidewalk, let’s not have a sidewalk.” Jesse McAleer testified, “I can’t believe we would consider removing something like that from our natural world.” Don Marshall, an original BARC member, said standards require a sidewalk wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass each other. “There must be some way we could avoid that,” he said. “I am just totally perplexed.”
Long-time BARC member Jaci Edwards also referenced “a sidewalk that rarely if ever is going to be used.” But Michael Barbehenn, who chairs the Trails Committee, welcomed the sidewalk for completing the connection between the Minnie Reid conservation area and Lane School. Still, he added, “If we can do anything to save the trees, that would be awesome.”
“We made a lot of promises and set a lot of goals about sidewalks so we can become a more walkable town and get people out of their cars,” Select Board member Emily Mitchell commented. “Will this sidewalk get used? Not if it doesn’t exist.”
She identified a deeper issue mentioned by some advocates: “Everything we are supposed to be doing has worked. But there are still conflicts. It would be a shame not to move forward and I would be happier if we could keep at least one of these oldest trees.” Board member Bopha Malone agreed with the dilemma – the tree policy worked, but it still may need to be revisited.
“This intersection was the scariest part of teaching my kid how to drive,” Mitchell said. “That part I don’t think is in question for anybody.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763