If a tree falls alone in a forest, does it make a sound? Better yet, if it sounds the alarm before it falls, will the right people hear?
For Wilton resident Kimberlee Smith, the answer was ‘no.’
After nearly six months of pleading with the Wilton Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to remove what Smith said was a dangerous tree on land owned by the Trust–mere feet away from her property and a house she rents to a young family–a large branch fell from the tree and pierced a hole in her tenants’ roof on Christmas Day.
Firefighters and police worked to patch the hole that holiday morning, which had cracked the sheetrock of the kitchen ceiling just feet away from the family’s two-year-old’s bedroom.
“This is not an act of God,” Smith, said. “It was an act of negligence.”
Christmas was no magic day for the family of three with one on-the-way. The incident was not something Smith viewed as an ‘accident,’ but rather the predictable result of a slow, unsuccessful correspondence about a dead tree, and a warning that turned into an untimely reality.
“We were very emotional and angry,” Smith said. “You can’t have a kid living under a tree that’s about to fall and no one’s taking responsibility.”
Located on a small strip of WLCT-owned land, the tree is elevated several feet above the bordering property separated from Smith’s by a stone wall.
The house on Smith’s 4.76-acre property at 550 Ridgefield Rd. (on the corner of Ridgefield Rd. and Keeler Ridge Rd.), is located directly below the tree, and abuts the narrow swath of Trust land, which leads to a lesser-known trail to the Trust-owned Harrison Smith Preserve.
The tree is big, burly, and dead, its limbs remaining bare in the summer as its neighboring trees bloomed, and at least one branch hung in limbo over the tenant’s home. The tenants asked for its removal last summer.
Smith first called for the tree’s removal in May through the town’s Planning and Zoning Department, saying it was “imminently dangerous.” She also reported the tree on See Click Fix.
Wilton’s Director of Environmental Affairs Mike Conklin told GMW he couldn’t comment on the specific situation between Smith and WLCT, and explained the town doesn’t act as an intermediary between two private property owners.
But he could explain what is generally ‘customary’ in tree disputes.
If one neighbor has a problem with another neighbor’s tree, the ‘neighborly’ thing to do would be to ask permission to have it removed at the asking neighbor’s – not the tree owner’s – expense. But if said tree is a danger to the asking neighbor’s property or house, not simply a nuisance, Conklin said it becomes a different issue.
“If it’s going to threaten someone’s house,” he said, “I do think that that’s much different.”
When it was made clear that the tree was owned by the Land Trust and not the town’s responsibility, Smith directed her request to Trust officials in an email dated July 2.
“As soon as it became the Land Trust issue it was like a game of hot potato,” she said. “Nobody wants to touch it.”
The Wilton Land Trust’s response, which came four days later from new executive director David McCarthy, was clear: the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, as a donor-driven, all-volunteer, non-profit organization, does not remove trees bordering neighbors properties, he said, and could not cover removal expenses.
However, he said if Smith paid for a Connecticut licensed arborist to evaluate the tree’s health and danger and paid for its removal, the trust would not be opposed to its removal.
“I found that to be quite inhospitable,” she said, adding that it seemed to contradict actions she believed WLCT had conducted in the past involving the removal of dead trees for regular maintenance.
In late November, Smith heard from WLCT President Peter Gaboriault, who said that the Trust would pay to remove the tree, a job that would cost a few thousand dollars. He told GOOD Morning Wilton he met with Smith to examine the tree after an initial assessment in November.
As Smith tells it, communication was non-existent until Gaboriault stepped in.
“Prior to this, no one had come out, no one had looked at the tree. It wasn’t even on their radar,” she said. “He [Gaboriault] came out and saw and realized that it was definitely dead and definitely dangerous.”
Around the same time, on Nov. 28, Smith emailed WLCT leadership with photo evidence showing a WLCT-owned easement located further up Ridgefield Rd. that was home to a relatively newly-built parking lot abutting the neighboring property there, asserting that this other WLCT project had “certainly” involved removing trees and an expense for the Trust–trees that didn’t pose any apparent threat.
It was, she said, further cause for frustration at why the Trust wouldn’t accept responsibility for maintaining its land bordering her property–land with a tree that did pose a clear threat.
“This path is like the black sheep of the Land Trust,” she said. “It’s not the same as anywhere else that the Land Trust maintains.”
Gaboriault said in an interview that he was confused by the email and didn’t understand how the two circumstances related.
“I don’t understand what one has to do the other,” he said. “I mean, it’s not an issue as far as I’m concerned.”
But, also at that point, he thought everything had been smoothed over, especially after meeting with Smith at the site.
“It’s definitely our tree. And I told her we would take it down, but it’s going to be logistically difficult because it’s a dead Ash tree and you can’t climb that. You [have to] use a bucket truck in there. So I asked her if she could help me with a neighbor because we’d have to go across his driveway. And everything was hunky-dory, we were friendly and agreed that the Land Trust would take it down,” Gaboriault said.
But then a month went by, and Smith heard nothing from the Trust. Nothing was done or taken down–until, that is, nature intervened on Christmas Day and brought something down. And what landed on the roof wasn’t Santa’s sleigh.
The limb that fell and damaged the house will cost Smith her $5,000 insurance deductible, and she’s received one estimate for over $11,000 for repairs.
Both Smith and the tenant sent multiple emails to the Land Trust contacts starting that Christmas morning. She told GMW she heard nothing more from the Land Trust until Jan. 4, over a week after the limb pierced a hole in the roof.
In the Jan. 4 response, Gaboriault said the tree would be removed the week of Jan. 11.
In an email to GOOD Morning Wilton, Gaboriault said that the tree had not been removed yet because it was difficult to secure the machinery needed to navigate the limited access. But in the meantime, since initially confirming in late November that the Trust would handle removing the tree, he has checked on the tree multiple times.
“With multiple storms in the past several months this machine was not immediately available,” Gaboriault said. “I have spoken with the company multiple times and have met them at the site. They assure me it will be down next week.”
The tree is set to be removed sometime next week by Weston Arborists. However, the spotty communication between the Land Trust and Smith has concerned her.
Smith said she understands that the Wilton Land Trust is privately funded by donations and volunteer-run. She has volunteered for the WLCT herself, and considers the trails her “church.”
“I love those trails and I love the painted markers on the trees,” she said, “but the aesthetics of that are not worth risking the safety of people.”
People living alongside the trails, Smith said, deserve to be protected with the same effort used to preserve the beautiful spaces, including the neighbors of less popular trails.
“I think there needs to be a balance between what’s safe for the people who live along these trails, that they need to be maintained,” she said. “Maybe we don’t need parking lots as much as we need maintenance of the trees.”
What to do if this situation happens to you?
“The reality is we are a town full of trees and it’s really one of the things why we celebrate living here. We have people that move here, that live here, who like to be surrounded by trees,” Conklin said.
Tree issues between Wilton neighbors aren’t unheard of. It’s only natural that with so many trees, problems are going to crop up.
So how do you work out a possible conflict between neighbors over a tree?
Here’s what Conklin said:
“Sometimes if there’s a tree that a neighbor is concerned about, [and] the landowner doesn’t want to spend the money to take the tree down, the neighbor might be able to get permission from the landowner if they wanted to pay to take it down,” he explained, adding the example of someone who might ask to prune a neighbor’s tree that threw too much shade–that neighbor could (or should) offer to pay for the work.
Distinctions can be made, however.
“It’s different if a tree is going to fall down into someone’s yard or woods, [versus] if someone’s tree is going to fall into someone else’s property. That might be different if it’s going to cause an emergency or safety problem where it would hit a structure like a house.”
Conklin’s advice to an owner of the tree in that situation?
“It’s really a best practice to work with your neighbors if there’s a tree that seems like it’s a danger of threatening someone’s structure or something.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article mistakenly stated that Gaboriault met with Smith on multiple occasions. That is not the case, nor did Gaboriault tell our reporter that. We regret the error.