With Chelsea Gardens project dead, question becomes: Replant or let it regrow?

A cut tree is seen at the gate to the new Chelsea Gardens site at Mohegan Park on Aug. 25, 2015, activity that prompted neighbors and concerned citizens to oppose the gardens project.  Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom has ordered 100 tree seedlings to plant in the six acres clear-cut in 2015 for the soon-to-be-defunct garden project, but the park advisory committee chairwoman says it might be best to let nature do the replanting. (Tim Cook/The Day)
A cut tree is seen at the gate to the new Chelsea Gardens site at Mohegan Park on Aug. 25, 2015, activity that prompted neighbors and concerned citizens to oppose the gardens project. Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom has ordered 100 tree seedlings to plant in the six acres clear-cut in 2015 for the soon-to-be-defunct garden project, but the park advisory committee chairwoman says it might be best to let nature do the replanting. (Tim Cook/The Day)

Norwich — Ever since the Chelsea Gardens Foundation clear-cut six acres of land in Mohegan Park earmarked for the soon-to-be-defunct Chelsea Botanical Gardens, project opponents have clamored that the area should be replanted and allowed to grow back into the woodland it had been before April 2015.

So when Mayor Peter Nystrom learned a couple months ago that Chelsea Gardens Foundation soon would ask the city to terminate its 99-year lease for 80 acres in Mohegan Park for the project, Nystrom started planning to plant.

Nystrom and his secretary, Bonnie Cuprak, shopped around, found a deal for 100 seedlings — 50 maples and 50 conifers — for $100 and ordered the trees.

Chelsea Gardens Foundation representatives Robert Reed and attorney Theodore Phillips made it official Monday night in a closed-door meeting with the City Council, announcing plans afterward to negotiate termination of the lease and dissolve the nonprofit entity within the next 30 days.

But now, the call to replant could be set aside. Beryl Fishbone, chairwoman of the Mohegan Park Improvements and Development Advisory Committee, said a better plan might be to allow the open area to reseed itself naturally. Fishbone said science students from elementary grades to college could benefit from watching in real time the natural process of reforestation.

“We have a definite date when (the cutting) was done,” Fishbone said, “and we have pictures of what it looked like before, and pictures of them cutting trees and now.”

Fishbone hopes to excite science teachers at the John M. Moriarty Environmental Sciences Magnet School, Norwich Free Academy, Norwich Technical High School and Three Rivers Community College to study how nature would restore the woodland.

Brush and small trees already have started to take over the cut area.

Fishbone plans to bring the concept to the committee at its May 10 meeting.

Alderman Samuel Browning, also a member of the Mohegan Park committee, said he would prefer to give the area a boost by planting tree seedlings. He said he told the mayor he would be willing to donate $100 to get more trees for the area.

“I would prefer to plant some trees now, even though it will take a minimum of 30 years to look anything close to what it was before it was cut. For a few hundred dollars, we can get hundreds of seedlings to replant,” he said.

The Chelsea Gardens Foundation secured its lease for the land in 1993 and spent 20 years slowly raising money to pay for environmental studies, landscape architectural drawings and design plans. The group hosted popular spring butterfly pavilions and plant sales for several years.

But the project, the foundation and the slow progress all became the center of controversy when officials started cutting the area off Judd Road just north of the Norwich Rose Garden in April 2015. Opponents, led by abutting property owner Charles Evans on Butternut Drive, argued that foundation had no business cutting trees in the city-owned park without having full funding in hand to launch the garden project.

The first phase, with a butterfly pavilion, welcome center, gardening classrooms, gardens and walkways, was estimated to cost $20 million. Foundation officials said the clear-cutting was necessary to show the property to potential donors and attract grant funding sources.

A lawsuit attempting to stop any further work on the project was dismissed in January 2016, but opponents continued to lobby the City Council against any potential public funding for the project and contacted sponsoring corporations to voice their opposition. As time passed, opponents also said the council should terminate the lease and replant the trees.

The project had received a total of $262,949 from various city sources, including community development block grants, Sachem Fund grants and funding through the Mohegan Park Improvements and Development Advisory Committee.

Fishbone said Tuesday she was surprised when Nystrom discussed with her informally a plan to replant the property. Nystrom, too, was surprised that the foundation announced plans to disband immediately following Monday’s meeting.

If the committee agrees with Fishbone’s idea to let the property reforest itself, Nystrom said the trees he ordered could be used elsewhere in the 400-acre Mohegan Park.

“We will figure out what to do,” Nystrom said, “and there are other areas of the park that need seedlings.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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