PORTSMOUTH — Town Council member David Gleason had just left an Arbor Day event to celebrate the planting of a tree at one school only to find a whole row of them ripped out at another.
Last week a subcontractor began removing the tall American arborvitae surrounding the Portsmouth High School tennis courts as part of the “T3 Project” athletic field upgrades, which include an artificial turf cover for the football field and the resurfacing of the track and tennis courts.
Now two members of the council are crying foul, saying the removal of the trees was unnecessary and that the School Committee failed to seek the expert opinion of the town’s Tree Commission, which would have advised how to save them.
School Committee President David Croston, however, said the panel has been transparent in its process all along and hasn’t made any secret of its intention to remove the arborvitae and install wind fencing along the south and part of the west sides of the courts.
Mr. Gleason first raised the issue of saving the trees in an April 7 e-mail to Mr. Croston, “which I’ll readily admit was late,” he said. He also solicited the opinion of Scott Wheeler, the chairman of the Tree Commission and the City of Newport’s arborist, as well as commission member James Garman.
“They verified there’s nothing wrong with these trees. They’re meant as a windbreak and anything you put in as a replacement is going to cost you more money,” he said.
They requested a meeting with Mr. Croston but before one could be agreed upon, workers from Tree Tech, a subcontractor, starting taking down the arborvitae. (Green Acres Landscape & Construction Co. Inc. is the main contractor for the project.)
Mr. Gleason accused the School Committee of pulling a fast one.
“After planting a tree at the middle school (Thursday) for Arbor Day, I drive by here to go home to let my dog out and I saw all these trees missing,” he said. “My original understanding is that this was taking a backseat to the track and football field and they were going to continue to play the season and not even touch this.”
Mr. Croston, however, stood by the committee’s decision.
“Our engineers are saying the American arborvitae is not a protected tree,” said Mr. Croston. “The Tree Commission is doing its job. What we see as a potential hazard, they see as mature trees.”
The tennis courts are being completely resurfaced to repair the many cracks — some an inch wide — which have rendered them almost unplayable for competitive matches. The team is now practicing at Roger Williams University.
The arborvitae’s roots, Mr. Croston said, were not the source of the problem. “There is a root growth, but that’s not what’s compromising the foundation. There is material that falls off of that shrub,” he said, noting that is what damages the court and requires constant cleanup.
Opens up ‘sight lines’
“Yes, we had overgrown trees that did create a windbreak, but they had their negatives as well. When we looked at it, we had to look at what was the best interest of the project,” said Mr. Croston, adding that the tree removal will also open up some “sight lines” around the school. “We felt that improving that sight line back to the windmill was important for security reasons.”
Town Council member Elizabeth Pedro’s not buying it. “This has been like this for so long. We have not had any security problems,” she said, adding that the School Committee should have run the plans by some experts first.
“The point is (Mr. Croston) was supposed to meet with the Tree Commission before he did this and he didn’t,” said Ms. Pedro, speaking over the din of a chainsaw at the tennis courts Friday morning. “Why do we have boards and commissions if we’re not going to consult them?”
Mr. Croston said a meeting couldn’t be scheduled before the job began, shortly before the schools let out for vacation. However, the committee has met several times in public on the project and at no time did members of the Tree Commission — an advisory panel, he pointed out — attend or contact him before the contract was awarded, he said.
“If I was aware of their concerns, while we wouldn’t have slowed down the project, I would have spoken to them a long ago,” he said.
Mr. Croston acknowledged that the timing of the work — the same day as a celebration for Arbor Day, which officially takes place Friday — was unfortunate.
“Honestly, we didn’t pick the day,” he said. “We have no control over the timing and we have no control over the subcontractor.”
The irony of the situation, Mr. Gleason said, rankles him. Last week, he said, Portsmouth was one of only 10 towns in Rhode Island to receive a grant from National Grid for its commitment to planting trees.
“We’re just not doing it on a regular basis, or enough,” said Mr. Gleason, who noted that one of the arborvitae cut down at the tennis courts was more than 40 years old based on the number of rings he counted.
“There’s nothing we’re going to do today that’s going to save these trees, but I think there needs to be more public awareness of the fact that we’re stripping trees down and we’re not replacing them,” he said.