The Merritt Parkway

The Merritt Parkway (December 18, 2012)

As the worst storm in recent Connecticut history started to tear through the northeast in late October, the inevitable happened: authorities closed the Merritt Parkway.

Like the two major weather events before Hurricane Sandy — the tropical storm in August 2011 and the fierce snowstorm of October that year — the Parkway was shut to the public for some 48 hours because of the dangerous conditions. For dangerous conditions read "falling trees".

Now the Connecticut Department of Transportation is spending some $200,000 on removing hundreds of hazardous trees along the Route 15 stretch from Westport to Greenwich. Still, not everyone is happy.

The Merritt is more prone to trees falling on the roadway because it isn't subject to the 30-foot clear-zone stipulation that apply to other major state highways such as I-91. Trees grow within a 15-feet margin at the sides of the pavement, not to mention on the median as well.

The parkway, with its fine landscaping and architecturally significant bridges, gets special measures from the DOT because it is designated as a State Scenic Road, a National Scenic Byway and it's on the National Register of Historic Places. "The Merritt Parkway is unique among highways in Connecticut," says DOT spokesman Kevin Nursick. "We have to treat it very much differently."

The work on chopping down trees such as pines, cedars, oaks, and maples started in earnest after Sandy and will continue through December. Nursick says the overwhelming majority of trees being felled are diseased, damaged, or otherwise compromised because of the three recent punishing storms. A "very small fraction" will get the chop solely because of their proximity to the road, he says.

The DOT is acutely aware of the consequences of falling trees. In 2007 a couple were killed when a tree tumbled on their car in Westport. Their two young sons survived the accident and a multi-million dollar claim against the state for negligence is in active litigation. As if to emphasize the dangers posed by the trees, one toppled onto the parkway on Dec. 5 in Greenwich, just as DOT tree crews a few miles away were hard at work. No cars were hit by the tree, which fell in a section of the roadway that sees an average of 57,000 vehicles a day.

The tree work "has got to be done," says the DOT's Nursick. "Aesthetics is part of it, but the safety of the public is key. Human life is going to be the priority. This is going to trump all other concerns."

However long-time New Canaan resident and tree activist Andrea Sandor thinks that the DOT is going overboard on tree-cutting. The work "is going to hit Connecticut with a big ugly stick," says Sandor, who met and interviewed W. Thayer Chase, the chief landscape architect for the Merritt Parkway, before his death in 2003. "What was once a beautiful, living, lively landscape now lies in heaps along side the road. This is a national treasure. It used to be magical.''

Any changes to the Merritt tend to stir a reaction. In 2006 groups including the Merritt Parkway Conservancy, the non-profit formed in 2001 to help preserve the roadway, and the Sierra Club successfully blocked a DOT plan to massively overhaul the interchange with Main Avenue and Route 7 in Norwalk. More recently, critics have voiced concerns about the safety and the cost of a mooted trail alongside the Merritt for bikers and pedestrians. The National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2010 put the Merritt on its list of the 11 most endangered historic places because of "neglect" and "poor planning".

Still, the Merritt Parkway Conservancy supports the DOT's current efforts on felling hazardous trees. After Sandy blew through the state, Executive Director Jill Smyth and a DOT official drove together to survey damage. "The hurricane severely impacted a great deal of trees along the parkway," says Smyth. "Safety comes first. That's our priority just as it is theirs."

The Connecticut DOT has more money to spend on tree maintenance than previously, so more felling throughout the state's network of roads and highways can be expected. This year's budget of $1 million will jump to $3 million next year, with a crew of 50 workers.

As for the current project, the DOT's Nursick concedes that felling trees in the winter "just makes a bleak landscape look a little bit bleaker." But he urges road users not to cast judgment until the leaves start emerging in the spring. "We're not being wanton or irresponsible about it. [The landscape] will look just fine."