STONINGTON — It’s been four years since Westerly removed memorial trees from its downtown streets and now Stonington is considering following suit along West Broad Street in downtown Pawcatuck.
At the request of business owners in downtown Pawcatuck, the town’s Economic Development Commission sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen in January proposing the removal of the trees. At Wednesday’s selectmen's meeting, First Selectman Rob Simmons said, “This is in response to store owners who feel the current trees are blocking their signage, which affects their business.”
He added that the trees could be replaced with lower-profile planters.
The Pawcatuck Fire Department has also suggested that the trees add an extra challenge to putting out fires on the buildings’ upper floors. The police department also weighed in, saying the trees when fully leafed out interfere with the sight lines of security cameras, Simmons said.
The trees bear plaques honoring the memory of loved ones.
Removing the trees is complicated on a number of levels, said Jim Lathrop, a member of the Economic Development Commission and owner of Best Energy at 4 Mechanic St.
“We recognize that when these trees were purchased and dedicated to lost family members it becomes politically difficult to change these things because now you have this beautiful growing tree that may have outlived its landscape life, if you will. It’s too big, it’s hard to trim now,” he said. “What do you do, what’s the solution — it’s not easy.”
However, removing the trees would help the economic growth that has started to trickle into downtown Pawcatuck, Lathrop said.
“Downtown Pawcatuck is starting to change and we should support the business owners who are risking and persevering while downtown Pawcatuck is slowly reinventing itself,” he said.
Lathrop asked for a financial commitment from the board within the current fiscal year to provide a suitable tree replacement that honors those to whom the trees were originally dedicated to.
Westerly’s removal of its memorial trees serves as a cautionary tale that Stonington could learn from, said Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Chamber of Commerce, who attended the meeting.
“When Westerly took out all of its trees four years ago, all of the business owners were happy. There was not a business owner that objected,” she said. “Some of the folks who sponsored those trees did object, and to this day that continues to be written about in letters to the editor and a source of consternation. It’s a public relations concern, and that’s putting it mildly.”
She recommended that the town contact the families who dedicated the trees before any removal takes place. “We’re trying to save you folks, the elected officials, from the backlash that inevitably will come,” Konicki said.
She also requested that the two towns take the time to collaborate to come up with a visually cohesive solution to “keep the branding integrated” on both sides of the Pawcatuck River.
“The goal is to maintain a quality, attractive aesthetic with consistent elements for an adjoined downtown,” she said.
Melanie Goggin, who owns Mel’s Downtown Creamery at 37 West Broad St., said she supported removing the trees because they blocked the security cameras that could have revealed who broke into her store in 2014 during the Summer Pops concert in Wilcox Park.
“The tree in front of our store completely blocked the view of the camera,” she said. “I love the tree but to date we still don’t know what happened because we don’t have that visibility.”
The tree also blocks her signage and creates a streetscape that is darker than downtown Westerly's, she said.
“We have to make an effort to draw people to our side. It would be better if it was more cohesive — two communities and one downtown,” she said.
Janis Mink, a resident of Pawcatuck, said the traffic and the lack of parking were the factors hurting businesses in downtown Pawcatuck, not trees.
“Trees are not the problem. The problem is people in cars going to Watch Hill and McQuade's,” she said. “Don’t blame the trees for something that’s the problem of the traffic pattern.”
The board voted to convene a group of interested parties that would discuss the problem and report back with solutions.
“We will not take action without a public hearing,” Simmons said.