Fitful tree planting looks to be on again

(This story has been updated and corrected from the version that ran in The Charlotte New’s April 11 newsletter.)

Charlotte has found itself in the weeds about trees.

With 48 trees scheduled to be delivered to the town garage on 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 — the next Saturday, April 13, the selectboard decided at its meeting on Tuesday, April 9, to postpone the planting.

The trees were delivered on Thursday morning. And then it was decided that the trees to be planted at the town garage should be.

So, volunteers who had been recruited to plant all 48 trees, and then been notified that the planting was canceled, were re-contacted and asked to come on Saturday morning for planting after all, but just at the town garage.

Photo by Nancy Wood After a change in plans, trees were planted at the town garage on Saturday.
Photo by Nancy Wood. After a change in plans, trees were planted at the town garage on Saturday.

About 25 volunteers showed up, and those trees were planted in about two hours. But around 30 trees remained unplanted.

On this Monday, April 15, the selectboard held a hastily called special meeting to figure out what to do with the unplanted trees that had been ordered for planting on State Park Road and which were still stored at the town garage. Chair Jim Faulkner said he had talked with the nursery that supplied the trees and was told the trees needed to be planted in a week.

Faulkner said that meant the trees needed to be planted in two days.

The Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge oversight committee has a need for trees in the park. Jessie Bradley, co-chair of the committee, said they had found a company that would plant the trees there for $3,000.

She said they planned to email volunteers to see if they could get more help with the planting effort.

Ultimately, the selectboard voted unanimously to spend not more than $3,000 on the tree planting.

At the April 11 selectboard 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.

The next day, Charlotte tree warden Mark Dillenbeck and Susan Smith, the town’s other deputy tree warden, 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 more than 15 years of volunteering on tree projects, the town has been appreciative.

The April 11 meeting began with chair Jim Faulkner saying 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 that were delivered on Thursday. Some of that watering would have taken place on private property.

At this past Monday’s meeting, it was agreed that the trees in the Charlotte Park and Wildlife Refuge would be watered with town water.

At the April 11 meeting, the board had a long public discussion interspersed with a closed 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 trees along State Park Road for summer shade on the Town Link Trail there.

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

Town clerk Mary Mead said there is about $32,000 in the fund. About 20 years ago, the fund was started with a $25,000 donation from Bill Rutter, 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 along roadsides and in public places, Dillenbeck said.

For years, what trees to spend the money on and where to plant them has 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.”

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 process 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 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.”

Ward Preston was hired by Robin Coleburn to dig the holes along State Park Road. She agreed to pay him herself, rather than use any of the money in the tree fund. Coleburn is the daughter of Bill Rutter. She said when she hired Preston, he told her his opposition to the tree planting wouldn’t be a problem.

On Saturday after the tree planting at the town garage was finished, a volunteer driving down State Park Road saw Preston filling the holes back in.

At Monday’s special called meeting, Faulkner said the holes were being filled back in at no cost to the town.