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Waterford - A neighborhood dispute over the town's removal of several trees on Greentree Drive led to questions Monday during a public hearing about the propriety of spending taxpayer money on issues affecting individual landowners.
Tim Conderino, owner of T&T Contracting, said he believed the removal of pine trees on the property of Kelly and Brentt Smith at 23 Greentree Drive set a bad precedent.
"You're opening up a huge, huge cost to the town," he said.
Geoff Burnham, a neighbor of the Smiths, requested the hearing because he felt that the removal of trees created an eyesore and as he wrote in a letter to the town, "taxpayer dollars should not be spent for work on removing trees on what amounts to private property and could be spent on more pressing improvements and repairs."
The Smiths, however, said during the Town Hall hearing attended by about 30 people that the trees were past their prime and branches were constantly falling on their property, endangering their children. Pine needles from the trees also blocked storm drains, they said, causing 4 feet of water to accumulate in their basement during one big storm.
One issue discussed was why the town would be required to remove trees more than 20 feet from any town road. But First Selectman Dan Steward said the subdivision granted the town a 24-foot right of way so that even trees deep within private property could be removed if they posed a hazard.
Burnham questioned whether the trees did pose a hazard, considering that Tree Warden Kristin B. Zawacki, who is also the town's director of public works, indicated in a note last August that she wasn't concerned about them.
"We don't clear healthy trees," she said in the note.
Zawacki said during the hearing, though, that the trees had deteriorated in the intervening months and were "snapping at the top."
Conderino and others noted that the Greentree Drive controversy occurred not long after Waterford High School removed 40 pine trees from its property to much public lamentation. He said the high school's trees were removed on a Sunday by a town crew, resulting in overtime costs.
But Steward said the high school tree project was ordered by the Board of Education's school building committee and that the town had removed the trees for about $15,000 - the lowest bid among several. The Greentree project, he said, was fill-in work, meaning that the trees were removed during a normal workday, not costing taxpayers extra money.
Steward said the trees were posted for removal, but since they were so far from the road many neighbors apparently weren't aware they would be taken down until it was too late. He said he decided to hold the public hearing, which isn't required, just to clear the air.
The air became heated at times as neighbors clashed over the necessity of the tree removal and whether it should be the town's responsibility for what some saw as a merely cosmetic procedure that should have been borne by the Smiths.
"There's a lot of heartfelt sentiment in this whole process," Steward said as he tried to tamp down an early salvo of concerns on both sides of the issue.