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Tree debris: Weston deals with familiar post-storm dilemma

Most of the trees that came down because of Sandy were evergreens, which tend to have shallow but wide root systems. Clean up continues more than two weeks after the storm. —Patricia Gay photo

A freak warm-weather storm with hurricane-force winds followed by an early fall snowstorm; blocked roads and extended power outages; comfort stations, charging stations, and more than a week of school cancellations. As Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Now that the immediate crisis has passed in Weston — roads are clear, electricity, heat, water, phones, Internet and cable are restored, snow is melted, school is back in session — Westonites are once again dealing with a familiar aftermath to the storm damage: trees.

“Unfortunately, the same thing that makes Weston beautiful and bucolic — the reason many of us want to live here — is also what causes us such problems,” said First Selectman Gayle Weinstein.

Superstorm Sandy took down thousands of branches and trees when it slammed into the northeastern seaboard and plowed its way through Weston. There were more than 220 road blockages caused by felled trees, and hundreds more cases of property damage. And, of course, there was again the problem of trees tangled in utility wires.

Blame

But unlike last year, this year blame for power outages and road closures couldn’t necessarily be placed on trees that were “too close” to power lines, or those that were weighted down by a combination of leaves and snow.

Sean McNamara, neighboring Redding’s tree warden (Weston has yet to fill its tree warden position), said the difference between Sandy and the October snowstorm in 2011 was the type of trees that fell.

Most of the damage from Sandy was to evergreen trees (spruce and pine), he said. “They took the brunt of the storm. Last year, it was oak trees.”

Oak trees tend to hold on to leaves longer into the season, so last year when it snowed in October, the weight brought down trees, he said.

“This year, we had the hurricane and the leaves blew off with the wind, but the wind caused evergreens to fall because they are resisting the wind and those are the types that came down with this hurricane,” he said.

This October was also a wet one, which is why a lot of trees were uprooted, Mr. McNamara said.

First Selectman Weinstein was on site with tree crews at scores of downed tree locations across town the past few weeks. What she noticed was that most of what fell were tall, healthy pine trees.

Also notable was how wide but shallow the root systems were on many of the downed pine trees. “Part of it, I have heard, is in Weston there is so much rock ledge that’s relatively close to the surface, so the trees can’t be rooted as deeply as they might otherwise,” Ms. Weinstein said.

As aggressive as the town, the state, and Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) have been the last year in trimming trees near power lines and roads, Ms. Weinstein said with Sandy, it didn’t really matter. Much of the damage was caused by trees that were healthy and not necessarily close to power lines or houses.

Tree maintenance efforts focus on trying to prevent “average outages,” which most often are caused by squirrels in transformers or branches knocking into power lines, she said. “You can’t remove every tree within 50 feet” of power lines, roads or houses, or there would be no trees left in town, she said.

Responsibility

As they did in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene and the October nor’easter in 2011, Westonites post-Sandy are again left asking, Who is responsible for cleaning up the mess left by Mother Nature?

What residents discovered last year still holds true: Determining just whose property a given tree is on — and therefore who is responsible for cleaning it up if it falls — is not as cut and dried as it might seem.

Roads (other than state or private roads) are obviously town property. But so is an area on the side of the road — the town right-of-way — along the edge of what is usually someone’s yard.

But according to John Conte, the town engineer, there is no set measurement used to determine the town right-of-way for every road in town, such as a certain number of feet from the center line or from the edge of the pavement. Instead, the town relies on survey maps on file; anything within the private property line is the landowner’s responsibility; anything on the other side of the line is the town’s.

But many trees and all power lines lie within CL&P easements, which are conveyed to CL&P by the state legislature. Regardless of where a tree trunk is rooted, once branches encroach on CL&P easements — once they get close to the wires — they become the jurisdiction of CL&P and neither the town nor private property owners may do tree work in those areas.

Who cleans it up?

When it comes to trees that do come down, several scenarios are possible:

• A tree is on town property and falls on town property. The town cleans it up.

• A tree is on town property and it falls on both town property and private property. The town clears up to the town/private property line. The property owner is responsible for anything that lands on his property. Sometimes, the town will clear town trees that land on private property, although it is not obligated to do so.

• A tree is on private property and it falls on private property. It is the property owner’s responsibility.

• A tree is on private property and falls on both private and town property. The town clears only what is on town property; the land owner is responsible for the rest.

• A tree is on private property and falls causing damage or injuries. The property owner is liable for damage.

• A tree is on town property and falls causing damage or injuries. The town is liable for damage.

Debris removal

Residents are reminded not to leave branches and other debris from their property on the side of the road — the town will not be picking it up.

The town contracted with a company to pick up its tree debris from roadsides, and the state did the same along the state roads that run through town (routes 57 and 53).

Residents, however, are responsible for removing their own tree debris. Thanks to temporary authorization from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), the town transfer station accepted debris for no charge for two and a half weeks after the storm, until yesterday, Nov. 14.

Now, however, residents must either store debris on their own property or have it removed privately.

Hersam Acorn reporter Kaitlin Bradshaw contributed to this story.

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  • Peter

    Kim, this article is a little unclear re: when a tree falls from one private property to another.

    The law is different from what many people believe: YOU are responsible for clearing up a fallen tree on your own property, or repairing the damage it caused — even if it fell down from your NEIGHBOR’S property.

    In other words, if my neighbor’s tree falls onto my property, I cannot collect for damages from my neighbor. The only exception is if I had previously told my neighbor, or he has other reason to believe in advance, that the tree was defective.

    For details see: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/connecticut-fallen-trees–branches—who-pays

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