$140,000 and counting: Ash tree infestation costs Ridgefield
Ash trees are still dying, and it’s costing the town more and more money.
“There are so many,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “When you look down a road you go: One, two, three, fifteen, twenty ...”
The town has been scrambling to keep up, with four tree-care firms working to take down dead and dying trees victimized by the emerald ash borer infestation. Because of the numbers affected, the town is dealing only with those trees that pose safety hazards, mostly along roads.
Town officials don’t know many trees will be lost or how much it will cost, but they’ve spent over $140,000 on problem since the fiscal year began July 1. The money left to spend isn’t nearly enough.
“The total available at this point is $127,000,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told a Nov. 20 selectmen’s meeting. “We could eat that up in a couple of months.”
“Rudy,” Selectman Bob Hebert said, “this isn’t even going to be the tip of the iceberg?’
“No,” Marconi said.
“And this is going to be at an accelerating pace,” Hebert added. “What’s our plan?”
Marconi said he was looking for more sources of money that could be used to take down infested trees.
“We can’t use LOCIP money for tree work,” Marconi said.
LOCIP or Local Capital Improvement Project money is the state’s principal annual grant to the town that’s open-ended enough to do various sorts of work, mostly construction jobs. For many years, Ridgefield uses its LOCIP money to repair sidewalks. But tree cutting isn’t considered a capital project.
However, Marconi said towns across the state are having problems with the ash trees, and there’s an effort to have the state change the rules for the use of LOCIP funds so they can be used to address dangerous trees.
Marconi said he’d recently been advocating that the state open up more grant money for use on trees on behalf of the Council of Small Towns, of which he is the president.
But the state hasn’t acted on that yet, and the problem is greater than the resources available.
“We can’t feasibly attack every single tree in this town in a year,” Marconi said.
“What’s the story with Eversource?” asked Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.
“They’re overwhelmed,” Marconi said. “It’s everywhere in the state.”
Dead, dying or weakened ash trees are believed to have been contributors to the large number of power outages associated with storms in recent years.
Marconi said reports of affected trees has slowed, but that was more because of the season — with most leaves off even healthy trees, the infested ones are less obvious.
“We’ll slow up a little on the burn rate,” he said of the money allocated for tree cutting.
Marconi also said there are some trees that have the borer infestation, and will need to come down, but it’s not an immediate problem.
“It’s a three-year cycle from when they’re infected to when they have to come down,” Marconi said.
“Do you have any idea the cost per tree?” Selectman Bob Hebert asked.
“$2,500 per tree,” Marconi said.
“This year, we have a budget for 50 more trees, or so,” he said. “All it takes is a single tree to come down on someone.”
“That happened years ago,” Marconi said.
“We can allocate $1 million to this and it’s probably not going to solve the problem,” Hebert said.
From a liability standpoint, Marconi said, his understanding was that the widespread infestation left the town in a more defensible position than if there had been a report of a single specific problem tree, which the town failed to address and it then fell on someone.
The town is dealing with the ash borer problem, but it’s just too big to be completely taken care of.
“We’re identified the problem, and we’re attacking it,” Marconi said.
He said he’s reviewed that understanding with the town’s Insurance Risk Committee.
According to Golf Committee Chairman Ed Tyrrell, there are about 70 trees at the town course that are known to be infected with the ash borer. Of those, about 30 can be handled by the golf course maintenance staff, and about 40 will require a tree work contractor.
As for ash trees in other town parks, the Parks and Recreation Department is working to address problem trees in collaboration with the tree warden’s office — temporarily being run by Steve Lavatori, with the former tree warden, John Pinchbeck, just retired.
Ash trees “are typically huge and require specific equipment and expertise to deal with safely,” said Parks and Recreation Director Dennis DiPinto.
“We actually ask the tree warden to assist on a somewhat regular basis.”
But he said the town parks are in pretty good shape.
“The Parks Department has been proactive over the past 20 years removing ash trees as needed as well as other trees dead or dying that may have posed a threat to public safety,” DiPinto said.
The emerald ash borer infestation is a problem all over the state, and in much of the country.
Not native to North America, the ash borer was found in Midwest in 2002, believed to have come in some kind of wood shipped from overseas. It’s now been reported in at least in 35 states.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has said it expects Connecticut’s ash trees to be completely wiped out by the beetle in roughly the next eight years.
“We need a three- or four-year plan,” Selectman Hebert said.