Municipal tree wardens get upgrade with revamping of 1901 state law

Norwich Tree Warden Franz Rendez points out a tree, left, he marked to be removed Tuesday along Stetson Street in the city. The tree at rear was marked by a resident and has not yet been slated for removal.
Norwich Tree Warden Franz Rendez points out a tree, left, he marked to be removed Tuesday along Stetson Street in the city. The tree at rear was marked by a resident and has not yet been slated for removal. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

On a rocky hillside off Stetson Street in Norwich Tuesday, Franz Redanz pointed out two scrawny maples that soon would be reduced to mulch.

"This one is dead, and it's a threat to the wires," said Redanz, who, along with being the city's foreman of streets, parks and highways, is also one of its two tree wardens. A few feet away, the other maple slated for removal still had a green crown, but its split bark and missing limbs belied a disease that left it vulnerable to toppling in the next strong wind. Other trees on the hillside, including three that a local homeowner is urging the city to cut down, were deemed healthy after Redanz's inspection.

"We look for any kind of scarring, broken limbs, disease, termites, and we look at the base, too. If you see any mushrooms or fungus, there could be rot," he said. "But I don't want to cut trees down. Cutting trees down is the last resort."

With still fresh memories of the hundreds of trees around the state that were toppled in the three severe storms of 2011 and 2012, causing widespread power outages and property damage, the once obscure work of Redanz and his fellow municipal tree wardens probably never has received more attention.

This spring, the state legislature approved the first update to the 1901 law that requires each town to have a tree warden. When the update takes effect Oct. 1, it will require all municipal tree wardens to complete coursework in tree biology, maintenance and pruning, urban forest management and tree laws.

"The storms have generated many more calls from homeowners nervous about street trees," said Teresa Hanlon, civil engineer for Norwich, the city's other tree warden. A few years ago, she took a voluntary tree warden course - one slated to become mandatory - and found it "extremely helpful" in understanding the complexities of her tree warden responsibilities, from working with utilities, to protecting trees adjacent, to construction projects, to public relations. Those skills come into play when she or other wardens post a notice on a tree before its removal, informing residents they may object and request a public hearing.

"It can be an extremely emotional," said Dave DeNoia, who spends about 25 percent of his workweek on tree warden duties for New London, and the rest on parks and grounds and emergency management. In recent years, DeNoia has presided over several public hearings on trees felled for a sidewalk replacement project in the city.

Focus on tree replacement

When the law takes effect, about 40 percent of those who currently hold the title in the state's 169 towns will be required to enroll in the course, said Robert Ricard, senior extension educator at the University of Connecticut who runs the previously voluntary tree warden school that started in 1998.

"It gives them a fundamental baseline of knowledge," Ricard said. "We cover community relations, legal issues of public spaces, planting of new trees, pruning, and all the human dimensions and governmental stuff that is also critical to the job."

The school, which consists of 15 hours of classes over six weeks and a final exam, is now set to become the required program, pending curriculum review and approval by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Already about 60 percent of tree wardens have completed the voluntary program, at a cost of $200 to $250, and will be grandfathered under the new law, along with any tree wardens who are licensed arborists.

The 1901 law, Ricard said, was a reaction to the deforestation of the state that had taken place over the prior decades, and the conflicts that were starting to erupt as natural gas lines and new roadways were being laid. At the time, residents were seeking to restore the canopy and stop unnecessary tree loss.

"The intent of that law was reforestation," he said.

The responsibilities changed, however, as tree diseases and highway construction became the main focus of tree wardens.

"By necessity, they became tree removers," he said.

Now, the job is evolving again, he said, to focus on tree replacement in public parks and rights of way, following the "right tree, right place" principle advanced after the recent severe storms.

But the original law requiring towns to have tree wardens didn't include any specific requirements for the job, so, in the words of retired tree warden Karl Reichle, "the only requirement was that you be able to breathe."

In some towns, the title fell to the first selectman, town manager or public works director, who had neither the time nor the expertise to make informed decisions about trees, said Reichle, who spent 17 years as South Windsor's tree warden and is founding member of the Tree Wardens Association of Connecticut.

"Every citizen should have the right to have professionalism" when a town official is evaluating a tree on their street for removal, said Reichle, who testified in support of the bill before the state legislature. "It's no different from the building inspector or the fire marshal. Trees are an emotional issue with people, and that's a good thing. It can be a real delicate balancing act, but the number one goal of the tree warden has to be public safety."

Increasing responsibilities

One of the current wardens who will be affected by the new law is Paul Rohacik, who's volunteered as Stonington's tree warden for the past 20 years. A former horticulture teacher, Rohacik has not taken the voluntary course and is not a licensed arborist, so he will be required to take the class after Oct. 1 to maintain his position.

"I guess I have some decisions to make," he said Tuesday.

In the past few years, he said, his responsibilities have increased.

"I'm being called on more and more about situations, from residents and public utilities concerned about trees," he said. "I try to strike a balance about what needs to be removed and what not to remove. When hurricane season gets here, people really start calling."

Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, was one of the strongest advocates for the new tree warden law. He noted that it was one of the main recommendations of the vegetation management task force formed after the two storms of 2011.

"It seems obvious that municipal tree wardens should have to know something about trees," he said. "A tree warden is incredibly important in helping landowners define and shape the character of their communities and ensuring healthy trees."

Now, he said, there is a realization that "we need to get ahead of the next storm" with tree maintenance, and tree wardens are key in making sure that happens.

"The more we get familiar with intense storms and the safety issues around them, the more you need some expertise at the tree warden level to keep our communities safer and our trees more beautiful," he said, noting that 90 percent of the power outages in the recent severe storms were caused by fallen trees and tree limbs.

DeNoia, New London's tree warden, said he believes the new law was needed, based on his experiences in the job over the last eight years. What he learned in the voluntary course, he said, has helped him better manage the city's "aging urban forest," as well as understand the social and emotional aspects of peoples' relationships with trees.

Lately, he said, he has been spending more time choosing trees to replant areas where old, diseased ones had to be removed, often opting for ornamental types over traditional hardwoods that can grow too large for urban spaces, and creating "tree wells" for new saplings that will contain their future root growth within a concrete barrier.

"Healthy urban canopies can make cities more inviting, and have a calming, pedestrian-friendly effect," he said. "The asset is irreplaceable. That's why I feel this job is important. I love trees, and I love a tree-lined street, but when they're going to cause injury or property damage, they have to be taken care of."

j.benson@theday.com

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