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Richmond Town Council approves tree ordinance

March 22, 2013

Members of the Richmond Town Council held three public hearings Tuesday. After extended public comment and Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth informed them of additional amendments to the ordinance, the council voted 4-1 to pass the ordinance, with Councilor Paul Michaud dissenting. (Photo By Maria Shanahan)

RICHMOND – More than 20 residents were present Tuesday for a public hearing on the proposed town tree ordinance, which the Richmond Town Council approved in a 4-1 vote.
The purpose of the ordinance is “to preserve and maintain trees on town property and to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the residents of Richmond.”

According to Town Solicitor Karen Ellsworth, this ordinance would impact property owners “very, very, very little.” She said the ordinance would only apply if the tree were right on the edge of the property impeding the town’s right of way and posing a potential public safety hazard.
Residents and tree activists began calling for the ordinance after a historic oak was cut down to allow for improvements to Hillsdale Road. The legislation was vetted by Town Administrator Steve Sette in December, presented to the town council in January and presented again at a public hearing on Feb. 5, but never made it to a vote.
Ellsworth presented four additional amendments to the ordinance before a vote was taken, which she said were made Tuesday afternoon.
The changes included giving Richmond Rural Preservation Land Trust, overseen by the Richmond Land Trust Committee, authority over cutting down or trimming trees on land trust property.
The amendments were made after Ellsworth had a conversation with Denise Poyer, chair of the land trust committee.
Councilor Paul Michaud, who voted in opposition to the ordinance, expressed concern with these last minute changes.
“Why didn’t we get this revision,” Michaud asked Ellsworth who had just read the changes aloud. “We should we vote on it? I don’t like this idea of making changes to it at the last minute.”
Another change included giving the town administrator or the town council the final determination whether a tree should be removed or pruned if the tree warden, public works department and the utility company are unable to come to a mutual decision.
Councilor Peter Fangiullo asked how often this would affect the public works department and their work.
“If there’s a project in place, we would know well in advance if we needed to do any trimming,” Sette said.
Council President Joseph Reddish added that Scott Barber, public works director, does not see this identification and protection of “specimen trees” coming up in the near future based on the road projects the town has planned.
It came to light that the town currently does not have a tree warden, as required by state law, and has not budgeted for one. They are in the process of looking for a licensed arborist to fill the position, which is on an “as-needed” basis. In the interim, Ellsworth said the conservation commission could identify specimen trees.
Resident Gary Whitney said he is concerned that the tree warden would act as a “tree czar.”
“It seems like an awful lot of power to put in the hands of one person,” he said. “Am I to understand that any tree that I have on my property that overhangs the town right of way just a little bit, I’m essentially subject to the whim of this tree czar?”
Reddish said this would not be the case and the tree warden identifies specimen trees based on guidelines set by the Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
“We will not have a ‘tree czar,’” Reddish said. “This [ordinance] allows for a process to identify and communicate about a situation. If it’s in the road, that’s a safety concern. We don’t have time to be running around town trimming trees that don’t need to be trimmed. We’re putting in a process so specimen trees can be saved or protected because they add value to the community history.”
Ellsworth said this ordinance would not stop property owners from cutting down a tree that is on the edge of their property.
“Nobody cares if you do anything to your own tree,” she said.
Dennis Erkan, a resident of James Trail, spoke in support of the ordinance.
“This can help maintain the quality of life in the town as well as identify and protect trees,” he said.
The ordinance requires that at least 30 days notice be given before any work on trees is scheduled to take place, except in the case of emergencies.
The notice period was originally 45 days and residents expressed concern that 30 days isn’t long enough.
Ellsworth pointed out that there isn’t anything in the ordinance that says the 30 days can’t be extended.
Council Vice President Henry Oppenheimer said that the ordinance was mostly aimed at National Grid and their work doing preventative maintenance in the town.
“One of the problems we’ve had in the last few storms is National Grid not doing the preventative maintenance that they ought to do,” Oppenheimer said. “I think they ought to give at least 30 days notice.”
He pointed out that it is a minimum of 30 days.
“If you make it 45 days, I’m very concerned that National Grid will do preventative maintenance in other towns,” Oppenheimer said.
The council then voted 4-1, with Michaud dissenting, to enact the ordinance as amended.
In other council business, the council unanimously approved an amendment to the town’s ordinance pursuant to the “Entertainments” section. The amendment pertains to the duration for licenses granted for entertainment events and now states that a license shall be for one month, three months, six months or one year, in addition to the “one more 24-hour periods” clause previously in the ordinance.
The amendment also adds a stipulation to the article that events shall commence no earlier than 10 a.m. and conclude no later than 11 p.m. of the same day, unless the event takes place at an establishment with a victualing license or license to serve alcohol, the town council then has the authority to establish the hour at which the entertainment must end and the days of the week on which the entertainment must take place. Furthermore, the licensee may not permit an event at such an establishment to continue beyond the established closing time.
The council also unanimously adopted amendments to the town’s comprehensive plan, as presented by Town Planner Denise Stetson.
Stetson said the town mostly got favorable comments back on the plan from statewide planning, and only needs to make minor changes to data and tables.
The council renewed a refuse collection and hauling license, granted to D. Lewis and Son, Inc. The council also had a discussion on implementing single stream recycling in the town and at the Washington County Fair.
“It’s a process beginning with education,” Reddish said of working to implement new recycling practices.
The council adopted a resolution relative to “An Act Relating to Tax Exemption of Certain Property in the Town of Richmond,” which they will send to local legislators.
However, council members noted their opposition to House Bill 5565 relative to early in-person voting.
This bill would allow voting to take place 21 days ahead of schedule and would cost the town a substantial amount of money to staff the voting booths with at least two people seven days a week for 21 days.
“This would be detrimental to the town budget wise,” Reddish said. “This doesn’t make sense because there is an absentee ballot process.”
Council members said they thought only a few people might take advantage of the early voting, which wasn’t worth the cost.?“It’s multiple hours, on multiple days, for multiple thousands of dollars,” Oppenheimer said.
Prior to adjournment, Sette said the council would have the budget by Friday and the council scheduled a budget work session for March 26 at 6:30 p.m.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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