COPAKE–Time may have run out for a row of 70-foot-tall Norway spruce trees.
County officials say they impede visibility along a 153-foot curved section of county Routes 7A (Center Hill Road) and 7, where a long-awaited county highway improvement project is planned.
The county Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote in August on whether to move forward with eminent domain proceedings to seize the slice of land on which the trees stand. Once the land is seized, the 45 trees, or at least some of them, would then be removed to improve the sight distance around the Mountain View Road/Center Hill Road intersection as part of the road rehabilitation project.
But Susan Winchell-Sweeney, the owner of the property and the trees in question, believes the county can solve the sight distance issue without taking her trees and for a fraction of the cost.
An archaeologist with the State Museum, Ms. Winchell-Sweeney has been writing letters, attending meetings, collecting official county documents under the Freedom of Information Act and speaking out about the matter since she first became aware of what the county intended to do to her trees.
The county initially applied to the state Department of Transportation for the road rehabilitation project in 1999. The plan is to resurface Center Hill Road from its start at the Church Street intersection to its end at County Route 7. The project continues northwest from that intersection on County Route 7 to state Route 23 in Craryville.
Covering about six miles total, the project aims to rehabilitate the pavement, install new guardrails, upgrade signs, fix and or clean shoulders, ditches and culverts and make “a few safety improvements.”
Also part of this combined highway and bridge rehabilitation project is the replacement of Brown’s Dam bridge over the Roeliff Jansen Kill on Center Hill Road at Robinson Pond.
There are two other bridges on the project route, both at the Craryville end, which will receive minor repairs and cosmetic work.
The total combined project cost is estimated at somewhere around $4 million, with the federal government picking up 80% of the tab, the state 15% and the county 5%.
At a public information meeting at the Copake Town Hall in May 2004, the announced project schedule called for construction to begin in the summer of 2005, with project completion by spring 2006.
Dean Knox, the director of engineering for the county Department of Public Works said Tuesday that the most recent schedule puts the start date in April 2010, with the road portion of project finished by the end of that year. The bridge would not be complete until sometime in 2011.
Mr. Knox indicated that the holdup on this project is not out of the ordinary and that “every project” gets “held back” for one reason or another.
County DPW Commissioner David Robinson said Tuesday the delays are due to state officials, who are “not moving as fast as we’d like them to.” He also cited difficulties with the acquisition of easements from property owners along the project route.
Ms. Winchell-Sweeney purchased her property, just under one-acre property, in October 2007. But it wasn’t until July 2008 when she received a letter from Assistant County Attorney Tal Rappleyea telling her about the planned road project that she learned that the row of healthy, mature Norway spruce that shield her house from the traffic on Center Hill Road were on the chopping block. She is the fourth owner of the property since the project was first proposed.
The county wants to pay Ms. Winchell-Sweeney $350–the appraised value of the 153-foot-long parcel, less than .02 acres–plus $15,000 in direct damages she will suffer for the loss of the trees.
“I don’t want the county’s money,” Ms. Winchell-Sweeney says. She says the amount does not adequately reflect what it would cost her to replace the trees at their current size.
The age of the trees is around 40 years. The estimate comes from neighbors, including Copake Highway Superintendent Larry Proper. Ms. Winchell-Sweeney says he remembers when the trees were planted. The life span of the trees is on average somewhere between 100 and 220 years, according to Ms. Winchell-Sweeney, who says the county’s appraisal of the trees characterizes them as on the brink of death.
Among the other points Ms. Winchell-Sweeney makes about her case are that:
*There are other intersections along the project route at which sight distance is a problem, but the county has no plans to do anything about them
*The county conducted no comprehensive sight distance study, which should include a crash analysis at the intersection.
Mr. Knox confirmed that the there are two intersections along the project route at Twin Bridges Road and a Fairview Drive, at which the county will not address sight distance issues, simply because the cost to fix the problems is prohibitive and not economically feasible as part of this project.
Mr. Robinson said that sight distance problems at the Mountain View/Center Hill Road intersection are “very well documented.” Though no comprehensive sight distance study was conducted, the county does have a “very thick engineer’s report” that supports the removal of the trees based on federally-approved design standards that the project must meet, said Mr. Robinson.
In January, the Public Works Committee voted to go ahead with eminent domain proceedings only to have the full board drop the resolution from consideration in February after Ms. Winchell-Sweeney wrote letters to all county supervisors detailing the situation.
The tree-removal/eminent domain issue resurfaced in May and June of this year when the prospect of county liability in the event of an accident at the intersection came up at Public Works Committee meetings.
After the committee’s July meeting at Kozel’s restaurant, Ms. Winchell-Sweeney learned that the committee had again voted to pursue eminent domain proceedings after Assistant County Attorney Rappleyea presented several examples of liability cases against other counties.
Mr. Rappleyea declined to discuss the Winchell-Sweeney case when contacted by The Columbia Paper Tuesday.
Greenport Supervisor John Rutkey, who chairs the Public Works Committee did not return a call for comment by press deadline.
The matter will come up for a full board vote August 12.
In the meantime, Ms. Winchell-Sweeney has been hoping for a speed limit reduction on her section of road. The state Department of Transportation denied the town’s request for a speed limit reduction at the location based on:
*Accident history–there have been no accidents
*A speed sample, which found that 85% of drivers obeyed the 45 mph speed limit along that section of road
*Sight distance, which apparently was not enough of a problem to warrant a reduction in the speed limit.
Ms. Winchell-Sweeney believes the sight distance problem can be alleviated with a speed limit reduction and the posting of appropriate warning signs approaching the intersection from both directions.
According to Mr. Knox the cost to remove the necessary number of Ms. Winchell-Sweeney’s trees, about 40% of them, to improve the sight distance will be less than $5,000.
Ms. Winchell-Sweeney believes that the installation of warning signs or even a flashing light would cost the county significantly less.
In anticipation of the August vote, Ms. Winchell-Sweeney intends to mount another letter writing campaign and plans to be at the meeting to once more defend her trees. She characterizes the dilemma as a clash of viewpoints, “traffic engineering versus preservationism.”
Both Mr. Robinson and Mr. Knox said they are willing to work with Ms. Winchell-Sweeney to resolve the situation amicably.
But replacing the trees with trees of equal size is not an option, unless Ms. Winchell-Sweeney buys them, said Mr. Robinson.
To contact Diane Valden email dvalden@ColumbiaPaper.com.