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Jim Kenyon: Trees Uprooted in Norwich

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Wednesday, December 06, 2017

For as long as I can remember, Norwich has had a fascination — an obsession, really — with the so-called gateway into town.

I’m talking about the mile of highway that starts at Ledyard Bridge on the Connecticut River, climbs up the hill, continues through the stoplights at Interstate 91, and ends at the town green.

It wasn’t too many years ago that a developer’s plan to build $500,000 townhomes on a vacant lot along the gateway led to much angst among residents. But Norwich’s worst fears were never realized — the project didn’t turn out to be a blight on the landscape that caused people to make a quick U-turn back to the interstate.

To make folks feel welcome upon arriving in Norwich, a big gateway sign was erected. The sign notes that the town’s founding dates back to colonial times, but neglects to warn drivers they’re entering Vermont’s second biggest speed trap. (Woodstock is an indisputable No. 1.)

But even with its fancy sign, bike lanes and apple orchard in an adjacent field, the gateway apparently still needed more sprucing up.

This fall, near the entrance to the Montshire Museum of Science, the town planted seven Princeton elms in the road’s median island.

“We’re trying to keep the gateway to Norwich nice looking,” Director of Public Works Andy Hodgdon told me.

I don’t fault Hodgdon for spending $1,365 of taxpayers’ money on seven trees. He’s just following the will of the people. The gateway, officially known as Route 10A, is to Norwich what the Avenue des Champs-Elysees is to Paris. But there was a problem: The median island is state property. And Norwich didn’t have permission to plant the trees.

As (bad) luck would have it, a higher-up with the Vermont Agency of Transportation happened to drive by on the day the 10-foot-high trees were being planted.

The state official got in touch with Tammy Ellis, the agency’s administrator for this part of the state. “Do you know they’re doing this?” he asked.

Ellis didn’t.

“It was my mistake,” Hodgdon told me. “I just didn’t follow the procedure. We figured we had a little more jurisdiction than we did.”

After being informed of its mistake, the town applied for a state landscaping permit — albeit after the elms were already in the ground.

If Norwich figured it would be better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission to plant the trees in the first place, it was mistaken, Ellis said.

The regulations are pretty straightforward on the planting of trees in a state highway right of way, she said. In a Nov. 15 letter, Ellis informed the town that it had two weeks to remove the trees.

Ellis’ letter clearly didn’t rank with Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech 30 years ago in Berlin, but I sense she took a certain amount of satisfaction from being able to say, in essence, “Norwich, dig up those elms!”

Ellis, who has worked at the transportation agency for 30 years, is one of the rare state administrators who isn’t afraid to speak her mind to reporters. Norwich’s planting of the trees without asking the state, “is a sore subject with me,” she said. “The town knew better.”

She then gave me a brief history of that section of state road. A few years ago, Norwich approached the transportation agency about reclassifying the gateway, to give the town more say in its upkeep.

In exchange for maintaining the road, including plowing snow, Norwich would be able to do with it as it saw fit (e.g. plant trees in the median). But after the state had spent a lot of time and money to make it happen, the town backed out of the deal, Ellis told me when I stopped by her White River Junction office on Monday.

Politics aside, the state had good reasons for wanting the trees out of the median. A full-grown Princeton elm can grow to be 40-feet tall or higher. Falling limbs — or entire trees — are safety hazards. The roots can also tear up the road’s pavement, and state taxpayers “are the ones who pay the price for it,” Ellis said.

Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee, who has been in town only since May, told me that he signed off on the tree planting. (Selectboard approval wasn’t required.)

As a land-use planner by trade, Durfee said, he supports an “aesthetic treatment,” to the gateway. “There has to be a balance between aesthetics and safety,” he said. “I thought it really added something to the gateway.”

Last week, the town dug up the trees — beating the state deadline by a day or two. A lot of people in town, including herself, “enjoyed seeing the new trees,” Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Layton said. “It’s too bad they couldn’t stay.”

The young trees are now in storage until the town decides its next move. It could just plant the elms on town property somewhere else or it could appeal Ellis’ decision to Vermont’s secretary of transportation.

Durfee plans to discuss the matter with the Selectboard in the near future. It might also be time to revive talks with the state about the town taking over the stretch of highway, he said. It could make the town eligible for more state transportation funds and “give us a little bit more local control of our gateway,” he said.

Durfee is catching on quickly. In a town as wealthy as Norwich, looks really are everything.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.