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    Tuesday, July 23, 2024

    One word at heart of New London shade tree controversy

    Maggie Redfern, president of New London Trees, was one of several residents to speak out Monday, June 17, 2024, about a plan to abolish the city’s tree maintenance standards. Redfern is shown here at the intersection of Montauk Avenue and Plant Street in New London on Tuesday, December 20, 2022. (Sarah Gordon/The Day file photo)
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    New London ― With the City Council appearing to inch closer to a compromise that would prevent the dismantling of the dormant Shade Tree Commission, members were told Monday it’s the repeated use of a single word ― “shall” ― in a 14-year-old document that needs to be addressed.

    During a joint meeting of the council’s finance and public works committees, members and city officials discussed the possibility of not dissolving the Shade Tree Commission, as proposed previously, and instead only repealing a 2010 set of tree maintenance standards.

    Officials, including Mayor Michael Passero and Law Director Jeffrey Londregan, last month recommended the council scrap the standards and dissolve the commission in reaction to a “large, adverse” civil judgment the city paid out last year as part of a negligence case successfully filed by a plaintiff injured years ago by a fallen tree.

    That case prompted CIRMA, the city’s insurance carrier, to recommend the city abolish the standards document and the commission to reduce the city’s liability exposure and instead rely on state statutes and the discretion of its tree warden, as most other municipalities do.

    Londregan said the repeated use of the word “shall” in the standards makes tree maintenance in New London a “ministerial act,” or required one, rather than a discretionary call, and strips the city of governmental immunity if sued for negligence.

    He said it would be nearly impossible to simply remove the offending word since it appears so frequently in the standards.

    “(Shall) is in almost every sentence,” Londregan said, noting that term automatically requires the city follow a strict schedule of tree inspection and maintenance that provides no legal wiggle room.

    Londregan said there’s nothing to prevent the crafting of a new set of tree standards, ones that retains the spirit of the original document, but keeps the city out of court.

    Several committee members seemed surprised that the Shade Tree Commission, made up of members of the Inland Wetlands Commission, had not met in years. Passero said he did not recall the group convening since he was first elected in 2015.

    Londregan said he was confident neither he nor CIRMA would “be losing sleep” if the council ultimately opted to keep the commission intact, but noted that much of the group’s work is being done by the non-profit New London Trees organization.

    He said discarding the standards would not “result in chaos” or fewer protections for the city’s trees as relevant state statutes and discretion of the tree warden would serve as a “training wheels going forward.”

    Councilor Alma Nartatez pointed out the city currently does not have a permanent tree warden since the retirement months ago of David DeNoia. Public Works Director Brian Sear is serving as interim warden.

    “This is a perfect opportunity to revamp the program and not abolishing what we have,” Nartatez said.

    Several residents at Monday’s meeting, including New London Trees President Maggie Redfern, questioned whether the dissolution steps being called for were too drastic.

    “How can no plan be better than an aspirational plan?” Redfern asked.

    Passero and Londregan both stressed the city’s commitment to its trees.

    “No one is declaring war on the city’s trees,” Londregan said.

    Passero said the city is close to hiring a full-time tree warden, and he is cognizant of the concerns raised by citizens and committee members about the repeal recommendations.

    “But I believe we have an obligation to be fiscally responsible and do that in a way that does not leave us open to a judgment that would not be covered by our insurance policy,” he said. “So, we’re facing either losing our coverage or another dramatic increase in our deductibles and premiums.”

    Committee heads voted to continue the tree discussions in July with the goal of forwarding a recommendation to the full council that same month.

    j.penney@theday.com

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