Health of publicly owned trees a growing concern for town

By Kim Howard

Willistonians already are responding to Bill Conn’s work.

“There have been a lot of residents out there asking questions,” said the consulting arborist, who explained that residents have been removing mulch from their trees as they’ve been made aware of problems it is causing. “They want to take care of their trees and keep them healthy.”

Conn has collected data on trees in public right-of-way areas within Williston this month through his work with Trees New England, a South Hadley, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in tree management planning.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said that the town commissioned the inventory and assessment project to ensure a proper tree maintenance plan and to assist with future plantings.

Over the past 10 years, the town of Williston has required developers to include street trees in subdivisions as part of the approval process because of “aesthetics, general appearance, and I think it adds value to both the public infrastructure and to the private property owners,” said Boyden. “That infrastructure is getting bigger every day.”

As of early Monday morning, Conn had inventoried 900 of 1,200 trees and “for the most part the health looks good,” he said.

However, there are some problems.

“A lot of the trees that were planted in the Brennan Woods development were planted too deep and have poor form,” said Conn. “They’ve either had too much mulch put on them or not enough mulch put on them. And they planted only a few species.”

While Conn said he has found at least a dozen different species in the inventory to date, some areas such as like Wildflower Circle have only one type of tree.

The risk?

“It’s a monoculture,” explained Conn. “So if insects or disease come in and like that species, then they just move from tree to tree to tree so the development ends up with no trees because it’s all the same species.”

In addition to cataloguing trees in public rights-of-way, the trees will be mapped on a global positioning system and information will be recorded on each species and their proper care and long-term maintenance. Trees New England will also conduct a training program in September. Staff from the Public Works and Planning departments, and volunteers on the Conservation Commission and Williston in Bloom Committee will learn proper species selection and placement as well as pruning and mulching methods for new trees.

“Getting more education so we know how our existing tree resources should be maintained would be great information,” said Jean Kissner, a member of the Conservation Commission.

Boyden indicated that this process will affect future developments. “As it exists today, the developer or the landscape architect designs, chooses and selects species,” he said. “We’re going to be a lot more involved in that as a result of this.”

The direct cost to the town for the inventory and training program is $2,500, according to Boyden. The total cost of the project — which includes in-kind costs of town and volunteer staff time — is estimated at $10,950. A $4,000 grant administered by the State of Vermont Agency of Natural Resources through the Urban and Community Forestry Grant Program, “Trees for Local Communities,” will supplement the town funding.

“Williston has a lot of young trees so it can save on their budget by taking care of them now rather than waiting until they’re a problem,” Conn said. “I think the town is headed in the right direction by making sure their trees are going to be in the best shape they can.”

Conn said he will complete the inventory process this week. The presentation of final findings and recommendations will be made to the Williston Selectboard in December.

“This whole process is a good investment for the town,” said Boyden. “It’s going to make a better use of taxpayers’ dollars.”