Selectboard pauses tree planting at garage and along State Park Road

Charlotte has found itself in the weeds about trees.

With 48 trees scheduled to be delivered to the town garage today (Thursday, April 11) and 40 volunteers committed to planting the trees —at the town garage and on private property on State Park Road near Mt. Philo — this Saturday, April 13, the selectboard decided at its meeting on Tuesday to postpone this planting.

At the meeting, deputy tree warden Alexa Lewis told the board she would resign if the board stopped the planned planting. She said she had put in six months of work volunteering on the effort and had other things she needed to work on.

Lewis began emailing the volunteers yesterday (Wednesday) to let them know it wasn’t happening. She confirmed she had resigned as deputy tree warden.

Also on Wednesday, Charlotte tree warden Mark Dillenbeck and the town’s other deputy tree warden, Susan Smith, resigned.

“I resigned effective immediately,” Dillenbeck said by phone.

Smith said it has gotten hard to work with the selectboard. She was sorry to leave the tree warden program because, for most of her at least 15 years of volunteering on tree projects, the town has been appreciative.

During the selectboard updates at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, chair Jim Faulkner said the board needed to be more thorough in its conversations about allowing municipal water to be used for private uses.

The board then voted unanimously to rescind a previous motion that would have allowed municipal water from the town garage well to be used for watering the trees being delivered today. The rescinded motion would have also have allowed volunteers to water the trees after they were planted. Some of that watering would have taken place on private property.

Later in the meeting, the board got into a long public discussion and then an executive session about updating the town’s contract with Joshua Golek concerning the planting of trees on his property along State Park Road. Faulkner said the town attorney had determined the contract wasn’t enforceable and needs to be modified.

The town’s trails committee had supported the planting of the trees along State Park Road to provide shade during the summer heat on the portion of the Town Link Trail there.

Under that agreement the town would supply the trees bought with $10,000 from the Rutter Tree Fund, and volunteers would plant the trees.

Town clerk Mary Mead said there is about $32,000 in the fund. Most of it came from a $25,000 donation from Bill Rutter about 20 years ago primarily intended to pay for trees to be planted around town. Others have donated to the fund, and the town has added money for fighting the emerald ash borer.

Much of the tree planting paid for by the tree fund over the years has been in town road rights of way, although it has also been used to fight invasive species and pay for burying roadside cables, Dillenbeck said.

For years, what trees to spend the money on and where to plant them had been a decision made by the town’s volunteer tree wardens — Dillenbeck and before him the late Larry Hamilton.

But a few weeks ago, when complaints about the plantings on State Park Road began to appear on social media and be heard at its meetings, the selectboard began to question the process covering how these decisions were made.

Faulkner also said he wanted to make sure the town would not have any liability to care for trees after they were planted on private property.

“We have a private group that are putting trees on private land, and we want to just make sure that the taxpayers are not burdened by this,” he said. As the trees grow and need “fertilization, mulching, trimming or whatever,” the board needs to be sure the town won’t be responsible for taking care of them.

Although the money in the Rutter Tree Fund has been donated to the town, it might be possible to argue it is taxpayer money, board member Lewis Mudge said, because, if it is not used for these trees, it could be used for other trees in town.

The question, he said, is whether the fund is a town asset and how it should be managed. He doesn’t have a problem with the tree warden having authority over how the money is managed, if it is “something we consciously do.”

Neither town officials nor the tree warden have been able to find documents that officially outline how the tree fund should be managed.

Resident Deb Preston has posted on social media about her opposition to the tree plantings on State Park Road.

“It’s disheartening to see these walls of trees,” Preston said at the selectboard meeting. “It’s the same along every roadside.”

In her review of state statutes, Preston said she found that the tree warden is also mandated to cut down trees to preserve views, so she wants to know if there’s a possibility the trees might be cut down in the future.

“My only point here on what’s going on is the total separation of church and state. The town and private money and the private citizen should all be separated from the town,” Ward Preston said. “An agent of the town should not be going upon private property and promoting the planting of trees. The property owner should be coming to the town.”

Although the trees have been ordered, the holes have been dug and the money has been allocated from the tree fund for the project, Mudge said, “I can’t think about another issue where we’re spending $10,000 without it being discussed in open meeting.”

Dillenbeck has worked hard as the tree warden, Mudge said, and the town owes “him a debt of gratitude,” but the tree planting is a process issue that needs to be fixed.

Vince Crockenberg, who has volunteered on tree work over the years, said the volunteers had done a good bit of work and planning on this project and now the board was “pulling the rug out” from under them. He feels it will put town volunteering at peril.

The town has not been able to find anything that clarifies how the Rutter Tree Fund is supposed to be administered and the board has heard from residents who feel they have not had the opportunity to have input on the project, board member Kelly Devine said. “We absolutely have to clear up where the lines of authority lie between the tree warden and the selectboard.”

The board discussed the viability of issuing a memorandum of understanding so the plantings on Saturday could proceed, but concluded there was no way to do that properly in the amount of time left.

Faulkner said there is room to safely store the trees at the town garage until the agreement is “ironed out.”