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DEEP Commissioner Klee Apologizes to West Hartford Residents for Lack of Communication

Packed room at the West Hartford Town Council hearing about DEEP flood control project on Oct. 27, 2105. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

After a nearly 3-hour discussion at the West Hartford Town Council meeting Tuesday night, a myriad of questions remain to be answered about why so many trees were cut down and the overall transparency of this flood control project.

DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee speaks with residents and the West Hartford Town Council regarding clearcutting along Trout Brook. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee speaks with residents and the West Hartford Town Council regarding clearcutting along Trout Brook. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

By Ronni Newton

Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) Commissioner Robert Klee addressed the West Hartford Town Council and a standing-room-only crowd that included many residents of the “Horseshoe Neighborhood” on Tuesday night to respond to questions and concerns about how clearcutting of trees at the dead ends of Linbrook and Linnard Roads happened without clear communication to residents or town officials, and to state what will be done to ensure transparency throughout the remainder of the South Branch Park River Flood Control Maintenance Project.

“What is done is done. It’s a shame it cannot be undone but we want to work together on a plan going forward,” West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka said as the Council officially suspended its meeting rules to accommodate the discussion, which was not planned when the agenda was set last week.

Klee announced on Monday that he and other DEEP officials would attend the Council meeting and respond to questions from residents. The agency also scheduled a public information session on Nov. 4, at 6:30 p.m., in Town Council chambers to continue the discussion.

Klee also issued a two-week “stop work” on the project that began Monday.

Packed room at the West Hartford Town Council hearing about DEEP flood control project on Oct. 27, 2105. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Packed room at the West Hartford Town Council hearing about DEEP flood control project on Oct. 27, 2105. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Slifka said that he wanted DEEP officials to hear what residents are saying, and to commit to them that the area which already been cleared will be remediated and that there will be specific plans for the rest of the project that will be open for discussion. “There needs to be transparency about this. We haven’t had transparency but we need it going forward,” Slifka said.

Klee began his address be reiterating the importance of the flood control project – something which residents of the Horseshoe Neighborhood (that includes Linbrook, Linnard, Brookline, and Montclair) don’t dispute. The residents are angry, however, that a swath of their neighborhood was clearcut, essentially without warning or opportunity for input. “Going forward we are going to work hard to communicate more, to listen more,” Klee told said.

“In retrospect it is clear that a letter was not sufficient for a project of this size and scope. we are taking a pause and regrouping, taking steps that we hope will get us back on the right track for a project that is necessary for this town,” Klee said.

DEEP contractors haul away the remnants of trees that were cleared from the land at the end of Linbrook Road on Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

DEEP contractors haul away the remnants of trees that were cleared from the land at the end of Linbrook Road on Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

“Have you been to the site,” Slifka asked Klee directly. “I have not,” he replied triggering an audible gasp from the crowd. His deputy commissioner, Michael Sullivan, and other staff members have visited the site, Klee said.

Concerned residents had selected a core group of speakers in advance to express their views, including Dick Fair, a 33-year resident of Linnard Road. Fair said that when he first learned of the plan this summer, and subsequently received a letter, “I did not think much of it because the letter, intentionally vague, proposed a plan stating some trucks, dredging, and vegetation removal.”

Fair said it would be the third time the brook was scheduled for maintenance since he moved there, and there had never been extensive tree cutting. “On Friday the 16th [of October], big logging equipment shows up,” Fair said.

The scene at the end of Linbrook Road Friday afternoon, Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The scene at the end of Linbrook Road Friday afternoon, Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Fair searched the DEEP website and all he found were plans calling for removal of type 1 vegetation – which is less than 2 inches in diameter – in the area.

Most residents did not realize until Monday, Oct. 19, that the area would be cleared to accommodate the equipment and for sediment drying – nothing to do with the hydrology of the brook. And after requesting and being assured that certain trees would be spared, they were cut down by the contractor.

“How did things go so wrong?” Fair asked. “It is a temporary work area for a few months, where we have permanently wiped out hundred-year-old trees.”

“We are confused and appalled at the deviation … it is clear from how this began that we cannot trust the process and instead we have to ask a lot of questions and pay close attention to the details,” said Linwold Drive resident Suzanne Kinard, as she rattled of a list of very specific and technical questions about contamination and a timeline for remediation to which she would like DEEP officials to respond.

Area at the end of Linbrook along Trout Brook, after most trees had been cleared on Friday, Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Area at the end of Linbrook along Trout Brook, after most trees had been cleared on Friday, Oct. 23. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Arborist Andrew Bachman, who grew up on Linwold Drive and whose parents still live there, said he was concerned about the “insensitive” work being done on the site. He also raised some questions about a map that appeared to have been removed from the DEEP site the previous day and about the possibility that the subcontractors are profiting from sale of the cut trees.

Klee said they would check into the missing map and contractor behavior. Bachman stressed the importance of involving an arborist in any future work.

“What we have now are tree stumps, devastated land,” said Linnard Road resident Paul Palmer. “The DEEP’s mission is ‘conserving, improving, and protecting our natural resources and the environment.’ If this is any indication of what’s going to happen along the other 11 miles [of the project], you’re going to fail there, too.”

John Hussey, who lives on Brookline Drive, said the DEEP’s action is “an act of ultimate betrayal.” Hussey said that one of most moving statements he has heard was made by a neighborhood mother, who came home to see the “destruction of the utter beauty that had caused her to purchase her home.” She couldn’t answer her young son when he asked why they had to cut down all the trees.

Michelle Souza has lived on Linbrook Road for 29 years. She said the century-old trees which have been cut down as if a tornado came through had survived previous flood control work, including the construction of the brook itself. “For all of us it is a disaster and we are angry, frustrated, and confounded by the complete disregard for our environment by the agency that is charged with protecting it.”

Souza suggested some plans for DEEP moving forward, to offset what has been lost and to ensure clear communication moving forward. “All families and towns deserve to get something reasonable out of this environmental fiasco.”

Area resident John Sherman read a passage from “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss. “Each year I read my first grade students this story. They get the message. I hope you do, too,” he said.

Judith Riley has lived in the Horseshoe Neighborhood for 76 years, through several floods. “I agree it needs dredging,” she said of Trout Brook. However, she said she saw no need to remove trees that have been there for decades and have not just grown up in the past few decades due to poor maintenance.

“I thought I did this. I do sincerely apologize,” said Klee after listening to the residents. Palmer had said he did not hear Klee say he was sorry. “We were aked to do meaningful public outreach and we failed,” said Klee.

Council members also took the opportunity to speak to Klee and other DEEP officials, and to apologize to residents for not being able to help them before the project started.

“Community planning did not know scope of work. Clearly there was a change in plans,” Council member Clare Kindall said. “I would ask that your staff look into that commitments made not to cut certain trees and that were not honored. … We would ask for a commitment that that the area be re-treed,” Kindall said to DEEP officials.

Chris Barnes had done some extensive research into the planning and contracting for the project– and asked numerous pointed questions about when plans were changed to move the work area from the east side of Trout Brook (bordering Trout Brook Drive) to the west side where the clearcutting took place. Klee and DEEP Project Manager Dan Biron said they would need to consult documents that they did not have in hand in order to respond.

“We clearly let down our community. I want to try to see if we can rectify this situation and not let any more trees that don’t have to get cut down,” Council member Burke Doar said. He was trying to determine if the issue was one of due process, or if substantive harm had been done by unnecessarily cutting down trees.

“It may be the letter of the law … but if you are the expert I think you have a moral obligation to do more. In this case, you apologized, but the ‘do more’ was not done,” Council member Leon Davidoff said about the process.

“Our job going forward is to make sure we verify,” Slifka said.

After the hearing ended, residents said they hope to have more answers to their questions at the Nov. 4 public information session.

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