Daytime motorists on the Merritt Parkway between Westport and Greenwich in recent weeks may have noticed state trucks and workers thinning out weather-beaten trees deemed unhealthy from the historic highway's hallmark wooded medians.
The effort, which began in mid-November and is expected to last until the end of the year, is part of the state Department of Transportation's drive to winnow storm-damaged and other unhealthy trees it believes are a safety risk to drivers, according to DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. The effort will end in Greenwich at the state line.
"If it comes down to aesthetic issues versus personal safety issues, we need to protect the public," Nursick said. "A lot of these trees were beaten up badly in the last three storms we've had."
Mirroring the days after Tropical Storm Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011, the parkway was again closed for two days to clean up fallen trees, spurring a concentrated effort to cull ailing or dead trees along the median of the parkway and eliminate such lengthy shutdowns, Nursick said.
Licensed state arborists are helping diagnose tenuous trees that need to be removed, Nursick said.
Sick trees are then removed with a Feller Buncher, a machine designed for use in logging operations that grasps a tree at the base and chops it down, placing it in a pile to be fed through a chipper by state road maintenance crews. The efficiency of the machine is helping minimize delays that would otherwise occur if the removal was done by men with chainsaws, Nursick said.
"Basically, what we're dealing with is damaged trees, decaying trees, dying trees, and otherwise compromised that are a threat to the users of the Merritt Parkway," Nursick said. "If there is something that is clearly going to cause a problem in short order, like six months from now, we're going to take care of that as well."
A pair of fatal accidents related to trees falling on the Merritt in Fairfield County in recent years and other near-misses have focused attention on safety concerns on the road, which is designated on the National Register of Historic Places because of its unique decorative bridges and canopy of scenic woodland.
A 70-foot tall tree fell on the road in Westport in 2007, crashing through the windshield of a vehicle carrying a Pelham, N.Y., family. Both parents were killed; their young children survived.
The estates of Joseph Stavola and Jeanne Serocke-Stavola filed a lawsuit seeking $15 million in damages for wrongful death and "pre-mortem pain and suffering," contending the DOT failed to clear damaged trees from the parkway.
The suit has yet to get approval from State Claims Commissioner to proceed.
On June 23, 2011, a large tree fell on the parkway's southbound lanes in Stamford, killing Westport, Mass., driver Norman Gamache. One of the other two passengers were in the car, Goldie Gitlin, 84, suffered a broken sternum and was treated at Stamford Hospital.
Nursick said there have also been other near-misses involving falling trees, which along with safety risks, cause delays and detract from the road's status as a main transportation thoroughfare. The work should also help curtail accidents with trees that are close to the roadway, Nursick said.
Between 2007 and 2011, there were 17 fatal crashes on the Merritt Parkway, 10 of them involving a vehicle striking a tree off the roadway, Nursick said.
"Certainly if there is an impact hazard associated with a tree to close to the travel lanes, while we are doing the tree work, we will remove it," he said.
Andrea Sandor, a New Canaan native, questions the removal of so many trees and its impact on the scenic beauty of the highway.
She said the state could better ensure the safety of drivers with the installation of guard rails.
Sandor said she hopes to rally support from Merritt Parkway preservationists to protect the parkway's trees by starting a website in the near future.
"What they're doing looks horrible and soon it's not going to look like the Merritt Parkway," she said. "I'm not trying to advocate unsafe roads, but saying there is a balance and a kind of middle ground rather than what they're doing especially on this road."
Nursick said that while historical preservationists have traditionally sought to protect the parkway's historic bridges, overpasses, wooded canopy, a spike in trees falling into the right of way in recent years reflects that there are too many trees along the 74-year-old thoroughfare.
In 1994, the DOT completed a landscaping master plan to serve as a future guideline to address maintaining a population of native trees, removing vines and other invasive species, along with mowing and other maintenance.
"If we really get down to the historic side of it, there have never been this many trees in close proximity to the highway and obviously they've grown larger over the years," Nursick said. "It is not our intent to go out there and make the place look terrible but make it reasonably safe."
Jill Smyth, executive director of the Merritt Park Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the 37.5-mile parkway said she recognizes the need to remove trees that have been beaten up in Tropical Storm Irene, the October snowstorm last year and Superstorm Sandy.
"Right after the storm, I looked at the damage from the hurricane and there was tremendous damage to the trees," Smyth said. "Obviously, safety is first to the traveling public."
The ongoing effort to clean up ailing trees on the Merritt through the end of the year is projected to cost about $200,000, according to Nursick, and the DOT has spent an additional $300,000 in labor and equipment costs cleaning up trees statewide in the wake of Sandy, Nursick said.
The first section of the Merritt Parkway opened in 1938, linking the Hutchinson River Parkway to Connecticut. The parkway and its bridges were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. The road's original 68 bridges were designed by George Dunkelberger, and each features unique concrete adornments in different styles, from Art Deco to French Renaissance Art.
David Bucciarelli, 69, of New Canaan, said he is pleased the state is doing a concerted analysis and removal of trees to improve safety.
Bucciarelli said he believes the state could benefit if most of the wooded median were cleared and paved to add lanes in each direction.
"I'm happy they are doing it and I hope they cut down more," Bucciarelli said. "How many people have been killed or hurt on the parkway in the past three years? I don't understand the environmentalists who come in and complain that they don't want the parkway expanded. The land is already there."