"We Love Those Trees."
The road commission gets a lesson in community engagement.
Published in July, 2018
"We love those trees," exclaims Sue Shink of the Northfield Township Historical Society. "They're part of our identity."
Last winter, as part of a culvert replacement project, the Washtenaw County Road Commission cut down every tree within ten feet of the road on 2.8 miles of Mast Rd. and 8.3 miles of North Territorial Rd.
"We were trying to give an errant driver room to recover," explains commission spokesperson Emily Kizer.
"On North Territorial especially there are a higher number of run-off-the-road accidents," added commission director Roy Townsend--and "a lot of trees."
Numbers tell the tale: fifteen crashes and one fatality on North Territorial from 2011 through 2016, and six crashes and one fatality on Mast in the same period--and in every one, the vehicle hit a tree.
So when the road commission got $950,000 from the federal government for culverts on North Territorial and Mast, it also cut down roadside trees to provide runoff room. Townsend says the national standard is twenty to thirty feet of clearance, but "we compromised on ten, because if we did twenty it would be pretty much everything on the right of way."
"They said it was done for our benefit," Shink acknowledges. But "they did something to our community without us knowing it was going to happen."
"We sent one letter to each property owner along both project areas a few weeks before the project started," Townsend says, but got just two comments back. "Also the project details were posted to our website in mid-January."
It was only after the work began, though, that most people heard about it. Three hundred people objected on a Facebook page, and about 100 folks showed up at a March public meeting.
"There were a few more people than we anticipated," Townsend allows. And the turnout made it clear that the property owners weren't the only stakeholders. Plenty of people who didn't live on the stretches where the work was done cherished the trees--and were angry to
have learned of the project so late.
The criticism didn't stop the cutting. "We did go out and look and see if we could reconsider some of them," says Kizer. "We ended up doing pretty much as planned. The tree work is all done. The stumps have been ground."
But the criticism did stop a similar $600,000 project planned for next year. "Our board decided to turn back that [federal] grant," says Kizer. "We want to pause and take a look at our community engagement policy."
Shink approves. "I'd like them to offer more meaningful communications, more meetings, notices, and advertising. If they did, there'd be more buy-in."
"We realize that people get very passionate about trees," says Townsend, who's retiring in June. But he adds that "the townships were mostly supportive."
"The project was bigger than anybody expected, and we didn't receive any indication they would be cutting that many trees," says Northfield Township supervisor Marlene Chockley. "But their focus is on safety. They were trying to do the best they could, and reducing [the runoff room] from thirty feet to ten was huge."
Shink is running for county commissioner, and making the trees an issue. "I want to protect where I live," she says. "I want [the county] to maintain roads without destroying the things we love."
[Originally published in July, 2018.]
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