Silver Hollow road after the tree cutting. (photo by Bob Berman)

The Woodstock Highway Department’s removal of several trees along a stretch of Silver Hollow Road in Willow has prompted an outcry from residents of the hamlet and a debate over competing claims of public safety and arboreal aesthetics.

In a December 12 interview, highway superintendent Mike Reynolds acknowledged that early last week his department removed about a dozen trees lining the west side of Silver Hollow Road north of its intersection with Jessop and Eighmey Roads. According to Reynolds, falling limbs from the trees, which he described as diseased, posed a threat to the safety of motorists and pedestrians.

Aggrieved residents, however, maintained that most of the trees were healthy, as evidenced by the condition of their stumps, and mourned the loss of a stately row of maples that formed a leafy canopy over the road and stood for decades as a signature of Willow’s rural beauty.

In remarks to the Town Board at its December 11 meeting, Gary Maurer, a 37-year resident of Willow, protested what he called an “environmental disaster” for which the town was responsible. Estimating the age of the maples as 70 to 80 years, Maurer denounced the decision to remove them as wrongheaded, stupid, indefensible, and, after the fact, irreversible. While public input could have halted the decision-making process, it was now too late. “The trees are gone,” he said.

Board members replied that they had been unaware of the tree cutting and would discuss the rationale for the Highway Department’s action with Reynolds.

 

Competing concerns

The highway superintendent likened his position in the situation to “riding a fence” between competing concerns: the safety of the traveling public on the one hand and the natural beauty of a neighborhood on the other. The cost to the town of a given course of action also enters the equation. Reynolds said in the interview that he strives to balance those factors whenever possible.

The trees in Willow were growing on land owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which granted permission to remove them, said Reynolds. “The trees were diseased and were dropping limbs onto the roadway. They were close to the road and were not going to get better. I’m trying to ride a fence by keeping the traveling public safe from falling limbs, but (as a result) you get thrown under the bus.”

Reynolds added: “In hindsight I probably could have hired a bucket truck and trimmed those trees, but the trees would still be diseased and that would just buy time, at additional cost to the town, since Woodstock doesn’t have a bucket truck and would have to pay for the use of one.”

In other cases, said the highway chief, he routinely consults with private property owners before cutting trees on their land. His department’s recent activity in Willow included the removal of a dead tree on nearby private property, at the request of the property’s owner.

Reynolds added that he takes aesthetics into account when making decisions about road maintenance or improvement. “Yes, I do,” he said. “When we redo a road — we have macadam, blacktop, and dirt roads in Woodstock — we try to plant grass and restore the shoulders so that it’s a nice country road.”

 

Residents lament loss

In the immediate aftermath of the tree removal, which occurred on December 3 and 4, Willow residents reacted to the incident in interviews with Woodstock Times writer Bob Berman.

“That stretch of Silver Hollow Road is why I moved to Willow,” said Aline Filippone. “I can’t believe they ruined it.” Another resident, Marcy Zweig, sounded a similar note of distress. “I cried when I went by and saw what they had done,” she said. “I’m so upset.”

“What will they do next?” said Bobbie Blitzer, who resides on Silver Hollow Road with her husband, Bill Blitzer “It’s horrible.” For his part, Bill Blitzer disputed the contention that the trees were diseased. “Those limbs all bore thick green leaves,” he said. “They were a healthy, gorgeous canopy. All but two of the stumps are solid right through. I like Mike Reynolds, so I think there must be some other motive. I’ll bet he wants to build a trench there.”

According to one resident, the absence of power lines along the road allowed the trees to

grow into an overhead canopy. “It was unique…like driving through the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral,” said Maurer. Added Willow’s postmaster, Ann Filippone, “It was such a beautiful arbor.”

Meanwhile, Reynolds, whose department frequently receives praise for its efficiency and competence, confronts a quandary of sorts. “Trees are dying along these mountain roads,” said the highway superintendent in the December 12 interview. “If I have to determine whether a tree is dying and poses a road hazard, should I have to petition the community or the people who live on that road about removing the tree?”

Bob Berman contributed to this report.