Cutting trees can be costly — especially if they’re in town open space.

The Board of Selectmen has accepted a $43,000 settlement from property owners and their contractor held responsible for cutting trees on town open space land — the third monetary settlement of tree-cutting on open space in eight years.

Together the three settlements have brought the town $153,000 — most of it flowing into the town’s open space fund, with perhaps $30,000 or $35,000 going to legal fees, Conservation Commission chairman James Coyle estimated.

“The cutting down of trees that have been standing for decades has serious and far reaching repercussions,” Coyle said to The Press. “Trees serve functions in our ecosystem that no other organism can entirely match. Among other functions they reduce CO2, provide oxygen, moderate temperature, provide habitat for wildlife, and reduce erosion. And last but not least, they are beautiful to look at and soothe our souls.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi viewed the legal action that led to the settlement as a stand by the town in defense of its open spaces.

“You can’t go on town property and cut trees,” Marconi said. “You should know where your property lines are.”

Marconi spoke as the most recent settlement, stemming from tree-cutting in open space off Peaceable Ridge Road, was being considered by the selectmen before their 4-to-0 vote to approve it on Wednesday night, Feb. 19.

Denial stated

In the settlement agreement the property owners deny “any knowledge of the removal of such trees until being notified by the Town of Ridgefield Conservation Commission of an open space violation.”

Marconi noted that the town had reached settlements in two other cases of tree-cutting in open space — one for about $23,000 off Barrack Hill Road and another for $80,000 off North Salem Road.

Coyle said there was more than money to the settlement.

“An integral part of this is the property owners agree to clean up the mess they made,” Coyle told the selectmen.

But the money is part of it.

“We’ll take part of that settlement and do some replanting,” Coyle said.

He gave The Press the background that led to the agreement.

“The settlement at Peaceable Ridge Road relates to the cutting down of five large (16- to 24-inch diameter) trees on the town’s West Mountain/McManus Section open space,” Coyle said. “The cut trees were spotted by a Conservation Commission member in the spring of 2019.

“The property owner had hired a landscape contractor to do some clearing on his property. Unfortunately the contractor did not respect the property boundary and the five trees were on town open space.

“A Notice of Violation pursuant to the Ridgefield Open Space Use Ordinance Chapter 262 was issued in June 2019 for the unauthorized cutting of trees and placement or dumping of waste materials, including cut trees.”

Discussion at the selectmen’s meeting revealed that the contractor was paying $27,500 of the settlement, and the homeowners were paying $15,500.

Colye told the selectmen a lot of negotiating went into the agreement.

“We went around and around and did a little compromising,” Coyle told the selectmen.

Sufficient?

Selectman Sean Connelly asked if the $43,000 was a sufficient amount to discourage similar violations in the future.

“Someone says ‘I’m going to get a really nice view here.’ Is that enough of a deterrent?” he asked.

Coyle said the value of the trees cut was assigned in accordance with the latest revision of The Guide for Plant Appraisal, as published by the International Society of Arboriculture, Urbana, Illinois — which he described as “a manual in its ninth of tenth edition.”

A lot of factors help determine the trees’ monetary value.

“It’s a function of the diameter of the trees, the location of the trees,” Coyle said.

“This is a number accepted by the courts,” he added.

The courts have at times imposed penalties exceeding the value of the trees cut, according to Coyle.

“Had this violation proceeded to trial,” he told The Press, “the judge would have been able to apply a penalty of up to five times the value of the trees cut down.

“In one of the largest settlements to date in Connecticut (a court decision relating to a property in Old Lyme), the judge applied a penalty multiplier of 3.5 to the calculated amount (the State Law allows a judge to apply a penalty multiplier of 1-5). This resulted in damages and court costs of $650,000,” he said.

Other settlements

Coyle described for The Press the “two other significant settlements” in Ridgefield concerning tree cutting.

“In 2016 a property owner on North Salem Road cut down five trees on town-owned open space property allegedly to improve his lake views. A nearby homeowner informed the Conservation Commission, the cutting was stopped, and an investigation conducted. The town went to court and reached a settlement in 2017 for $85,000.”

The tree-cutting on Old Sib Road happened in 2012 and involved the loss of about a dozen trees.

“This was settled out of court for around $25,000,.” Coyle said.

“The Conservation Commission takes great pride in our vast network of open spaces in Ridgefield,” he said. “We both maintain those open spaces and enforce our Open Space Use Ordinance to protect them.”