Highway Expansion Claims Pin Oaks

Melissa Bailey PhotoBill “The Flag Man” Shields tried to stop the mighty grapple from felling his trusty shade tree. A state spokesman regretted the loss—but vowed to compensate with dozens more pin oaks, red maples and spruces along Long Wharf.

The pledge came Tuesday, hours after a tree-removal crew rolled an excavator onto Long Wharf Drive and felled a half-dozen trees along the northbound lane of I-95.

The high-powered removal prompted curious gazes and some words of dismay from the lunch crowd on Long Wharf.

The trees had to come down to make way for the expansion of I-95 and the retooling of on- and off-ramps at Long Wharf Drive, according to Kevin Nursick, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation. The work is part of an $14 million phase of work along Long Wharf, the latest phase of a billion-dollar remake of the I-91-I-95 interchange.

“We’re removing six [trees] as a necessity” for the construction, Nursick said, “but we are replanting many, many more and spending tens of thousands of dollars doing it.”

The commotion began just after noon on Tuesday when Clayton Ballard of McLellan Tree Service of Farmington rolled onto Long Wharf Drive in a giant, orange Doosan brand excavator. At the end of the excavator’s long arm was a grapple. Moving like a tank on caterpillar tracks, he rolled towards a pin oak at the edge of a parking lot off the highway.

Without hesitation, Ballard swung his orange arm towards the tree and chomped down, tearing off a lower limb. He continued to bite into the tree with the grapple, as though demolishing a building.

Spectators quickly turned their attention to the unusual scene. A passerby named John, who used to work for a tree-trimming company in Trumbull, said he had never seen trees torn down with such large or expensive equipment.

The excavator is worth about $225,000, according to Bryan Marshall, a tree-cutter who joined Ballard in the job. The machine’s embrace kept the tree from falling into traffic, or into the nearby parking lot. He strapped on heavy pant-protectors and headed to the train with a STIHL chainsaw.

He cut a slice out of the oak while Ballard held the trunk steady. Then, with a swing of the arm, the excavator toppled the oak.

“Tumbaron el palo!” announced a retired construction worker who had sat down to watch the show. “They knocked down the tree!”

The retiree, who declined to give his name, said he visits Long Wharf every day to walk along the harbor. He said he was sad to see the tree go, because he liked to park his truck under its shade in the summer.

Charles Kotoun (pictured) got a front-row seat to the action.

A driver for L&G Paradise Travel, he had taken busload of senior citizens from Great Neck, Long Island, to downtown New Haven Tuesday morning. While the seniors dined at the Union League and visited the Yale Undergraduate Art Gallery, he parked on Long Wharf to pass the time.

He was reading an article about tree-trimming in Newsday—about where all the federal money for Superstorm Sandy cleanup went—when he saw a real tree toppled before his eyes. He put down the paper and watched.

“I love watching construction,” he said. Then he corrected himself: “destruction.”

After the tree fell, chainsaw-wielder Marshall took out a tape-measure and marked off 17 feet. He cut the trunk down to that size and left it in the parking lot for another crew to pick up.

The log would be sent to a saw mill, he said, where it would be cut down to two 8-foot-6-inch logs and made into lumber. (Oak is good for that.)

The destruction drew some concern from the lunch crowd farther down the parking lot.

“That’s terrible!” declared John Hicks (at left in photo with Frank Giuletti and his Boston terrier, Lucky). Hicks was visiting his friend Ed Sweeney at Sweeney’s Hot Dog King. The trio grew up together in the Hill neighborhood. Sweeney has been selling hot dogs on Long Wharf for 53 years, before the Q Bridge was even finished.

Hicks said he understood the state’s need to expand the road.

“We need highways,” he said. “But certain things you’ve gotta preserve for the people, like trees, beaches, and food trucks.”

Next door to the old guard at Sweeney’s, a younger crew, representing a later wave of immigration to the city, was keeping IXTAPA Mexican food truck up to date with a fresh coat of red paint.

Alfonso Meneses said the highway expansion is overall good; it represents “the growth of the city.”

“The only thing I don’t like is the deforestation,” he said. In his home state of Tlaxcala, Mexico, he said, deforestation is a major problem. Here in the States, he said, the elimination of trees is more controlled.

He said he’s OK with losing the six trees—as long as they plant new ones somewhere else. “Trees are the lung of the city,” he said.

Nursick said that’s just what the state plans to do.

“Fear not, there’s a lot more trees on the way when we’re done with this,” he said.

“We’re spending tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars of landcaping on this project,” he said. Plans include planting 25 pin oak trees, two red maples, 15 Norway spruces, and spending thousands of dollars to plant grass.

From the other end of Long Wharf, Bill Shields watched the excavator move towards his truck, toppling a series of trees along the highway. Shields, known around town as “Flag Man,” has been selling flags and roses from the back of his truck on Long Wharf for 20 years.

Shields said he relies on his nearby pin oak for shade in the summertime. So do state cops, and families, he said. “It gives a little oasis to us in hot summer months.” Shields said he didn’t know the state planned to tear down the tree until five days prior, when he saw a mark of paint that indicated “doom.” Then, last Thursday, he saw a sign posted announcing the tree’s removal. Shields called a number on the sign to voice his opposition.

He said the tree “adds to the landscape” aesthetically, and its roots help keep the soil in place. He argued that the tree did not need to be felled to make way for the highway on-ramp because it’s too far from the road. “It makes no sense,” he said. He said the woman on the phone told him to write his remarks in an email.

“I was going to do that,” Shields said, “but here they come!”

Within minutes, the excavator had a choke-hold on his arboreal neighbor.

The tree came down in a cloud of dust.

“They should have given more public notice on this,” said Shields. He packed up his flags in protest and drove off to have lunch.

Nursick said unlike the city, the state does not have a public hearing process for the removal of trees.

“These are the DOT’s trees,” he said. “We don’t need permission to do work on our own property.” He said the trees were identified on plans discussed at public hearings, and the state did a recent walk-through with a city official outlining the plans for the site.

Nursick called the trees’ demise “a temporary sacrifice”—one that will be amply compensated. When the state first proposed the dramatic overhaul of I-95 and the Q Bridge, the city leveraged state highway renovations into an opportunity to transform Long Wharf Park into more spacious, accessible place.

With all the landscaping that’s to come, Nursick argued, “clearly they’re getting a great deal.” The park improvements would come after the highway expansion, which Nursick said is slated for completion next year.

“Don’t let the six tree-removals give people the wrong perception,” Nursick said. “The final product is going to be fantastic.”

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posted by: robn on May 2, 2013  9:09am

Replacing the gauge with a number of smaller trees just isn’t the same; large trees are a valuable asset. It would have been nice if the highway project budgeted for relocation of the best of the specimen trees? the New Haven Green is missing at least one major tree as of the last hurricane.


posted by: Curious on May 2, 2013  10:58am

I like how robn thinks, and I am sure this is the kind of thing people could have done a fundraiser for, to raise money to pay for it.

posted by: anonymous on May 2, 2013  1:47pm

One of many highway expansion and road widening projects approved under DeStefano. The degradation of New Haven is a great legacy to have.

The real question should be, from an environmental standpoint, how many trees do you need to plant to make up for widening a highway? I suspect that figure runs into the tens of thousands.

posted by: cedarhillresident! on May 2, 2013  2:45pm

I really kills me that they did this. I also saw them kill a half dozen pines on the downtown exits. The CAT could of easly of dug them and put them aside to be planted by parks dept or even a person willing to take them.
Such a waste.

posted by: robn on May 2, 2013  3:19pm


I don’t want to mislead and suggest its super cheap. A tree the size of the 1st picture in the article could cost $30-50K to move and transplant. That being said, and judging from the rings, those trees looked to be about 30-40 years old. They probably have another 100 years in them if well treated on the Green. Spread that cost out and its a cheap way to get an elegant mature tree that can be enjoyed by everyone for many years.