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From the Founders II

Saving Our Environment



Bob Capazzo

Through every channel of communications, we are warned today about impending cataclysmic events: the frightening prospect of an ultimate exhaustion of our supply of oil; the dire effects of global warming; and the increasingly unhealthy water we drink and air we breathe. For our air and water, at least, there is something we can do locally to help ourselves, and it can be summed up in a single word: “Trees”!

Greenwich Tree Conservancy

A few basic facts illustrate how essential trees are to life on our planet. In just a year one mature tree will produce enough oxygen for a family of four while absorbing the carbon dioxide from as many as four cars. One acre of trees removes an estimated 2.6 tons of carbon dioxide from the air in a year. While we may feel helpless to halt depletion of the planetary supply of this life-giving resource from deforestation in the Amazon, Indonesia and other developing countries, there is a lot we can do right here at home to protect and maintain our enviable inventory of trees.

This past March witnessed the celebration of the first anniversary of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “To preserve and enhance the tree and forest resources of Greenwich… .” Peter Malkin, a founder and current president, had noted the alarming loss of mature trees along Lake and North Maple Avenues. Many had been planted 100 years ago by William G. Rockefeller and were dying off (his great granddaughter, Ann Elliman, is cochair of the conservancy’s advisory board); others were felled by ice and wind storms; still others have fallen victim to excessive pruning and removal by Connecticut Light and Power. Altogether, it is estimated that nearly 1,000 roadside trees have been lost in the past few years. A goal of the conservancy is to plant 370 trees by the town’s 370th anniversary in 2010. Most will be by our roadsides and in public parks. To mark Arbor Day last year, the conservancy planted a pin oak at town hall, replacing the magnificent one lost in a recent ice storm.

But, planting alone will not be enough. Many trees are lost to clear -cutting of lots for home construction. Unlike New York State where there are communities with ordinances to control the removal of trees on private property, Connecticut state statutes make any such local ordinances illegal. Yet, the problem that Greenwich is having with storm drainage is due in part to the loss of trees whose roots absorb the water and prevent soil erosion. This problem will be a major issue addressed in the new Plan of Conservation and Development.

Without regulatory power there is little we can do about clear-cutting except through education. The case for saving trees can often be made based on economic self-interest. Well-placed trees can increase the value of both residential and commercial properties, and the real cost of their removal should include a decrease in property value. We applaud the members of the Greenwich Tree Conservancy for their efforts to educate the builders and owners of the many new homes in town on the value of saving trees.

Merritt Parkway Conservancy

There can be no better testimony to environmental foresight of a previous generation than its gift of the Merritt Parkway, now celebrating its 70th anniversary. Over the years the Parkway has suffered through periods of benign neglect and bureaucratic insensitivity. At its groundbreaking Congressman Schuyler Merritt declared, “This great highway is not being constructed primarily for rapid transit but for pleasant transit. The County is fortunate in having such beautiful backcountry and its our great duty to see that these beauties are preserved.”

The words still ring true. The Parkway was never designed to accommodate today’s high-speed traffic. From January 1997 to December 1999 there were twenty fatalities — half of them between Greenwich and Stamford — and an accident occurred on average every eight hours. In 1999, two sixteen-year-olds on an errand for the Red Cross were killed when their car skidded on wet surface at a turn and hit a tree. The tragic deaths of these well-known honor students spurred efforts to initiate improvements. Under Emil Frankel, former Connecticut DOT commissioner, plans were made to straighten the most dangerous curves, rebuild interchanges to make entry and egress safer, and resurface the roadbed.

Safety was one concern. There was also a deterioration of the parkway’s beautiful landscaping through neglect. Five years ago a group assembled at Dee Winokur’s home in Greenwich to create the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, a public/private partnership that included local historical societies, Emil Frankel’s team, Greenwich Green & Clean and the Fairfield County Community Foundation. They were soon joined by Peter Malkin, the conservancy’s current chairman. Though the concept originated in Greenwich, the mission was the preservation of the entire length of the Merritt, and the conservancy draws support from all the towns through which the Parkway passes.

Starting at both ends of the Merritt, the conservancy is clearing invasive vines that are choking out indigenous growth and planting new trees and bushes at a cost of nearly $1,000 per mile. In collaboration with DOT, repairs to the Merritt’s sixty-seven historic bridges, each with its own unique design, are being made without destroying their architectural detail. Wooden guardrails backed by steel, more appropriate for a parkway, are replacing standard metal ones.

The most heartwarming accomplishment of the conservancy was its role in defeating a government boondoggle that would have rivaled Alaska’s bridge to nowhere. The planned interchange of the Merritt and Route 7 in Norwalk would have created 21,000 feet of new ramps and several elevated flyways, destroyed four historic bridges, torn-up a mile of landscaped parkland and cost the taxpayers $109 million — a monstrosity totally out of keeping with the historic look of the Merritt Parkway! It was planned to accommodate the Northern extension of Route 7’s limited access highway. Opposition from Wilton residents forced the government to abandon the extension, but the federal government continued with their plan for a monstrous interchange anyway. The conservancy sued the government and, in a rare example of an aroused citizenry overcoming an entrenched bureaucracy, won its case. The court even ordered the government to reimburse the conservancy for its legal expenses. Meanwhile, an alternate cloverleaf plan more in keeping with the Merritt has been presented that will cost 40 percent less.

The Merritt Parkway Conservancy and the Greenwich Tree Conservancy welcome your support through membership in their organizations.

— Jack Moffly
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