By Melinda Baird, firstname.lastname@example.org
The three-member board of Washtenaw County Road Commissioners (WCRC) voted unanimously to turn back a 2019 Highway Safety Improvement Program grant for $600,000 per the recommendation of WCRC Managing Director Roy Townsend.
The unprecedented decision came after the commission received an onslaught of public backlash against its independent decision to remove legacy trees, some up to 300 years old, as part of what the commission deemed a driver safety project.
“I think this is an appropriate time to reevaluate our policies and how we can appear to not be running roughshod over people’s concerns,” said board chair Doug Fuller during the March 20 board meeting.
The grant money would have paid for 90% of costs associated with next year’s previously planned project to replace a failing culvert on North Territorial Road between Huron River Drive and Spencer Road. Tied to the grant—and here’s the rub—is the removal of all trees within 10 feet of either side of the 9.4-mile stretch. The road commission learned a couple of weeks ago it had been awarded the grant for which it applied last year, WCRC spokeswoman Emily Kizer said.
Members of the public since mid-February have been speaking, writing, petitioning and demonstrating to the commission in a collective effort to save older heritage trees from being cut down this March as part of a larger safety project along Mast and North Territorial Roads. “Targeted tree removal” helped solidify a 2018 federal grant in the amount of $950,000 for the replacement of two failing culverts in the area, Townsend conceded during a previous community forum. But, as the road commission soon discovered, it came at the cost of public trust.
“There’s a public outcry because people are recognizing something’s happening to them in the name of something being done for them,” said Sue Shink, Northfield Township Historical Society member and County Commissioner District Two candidate. Shink was one of roughly ten residents who spoke during public comment at the board meeting.
Shink, like hundreds of others as evidenced by Save the Trees Facebook group, said she doesn’t mind the removal of dying, dead or scrap trees – she simply wants the commission to be more discriminate in the trees it targets for removal.
“Some of those trees are older than our country, many older than our state,” Shink said.
The road commission, on the other hand, posited that the ten-foot clear zone it designated for tree removal was a compromise considering engineering standards call for a 20 to 30-foot clear zone.
Although public feedback didn’t reverse the commission’s decision to remove an estimated 450 trees along a total of roughly 11 miles in Webster, Northfield and Salem Townships, it did put the brakes on the similar project planned for next year.
“We decided to take a break and look at our policies and how we can engage the community better,” Kizer said. “We want to learn from these past projects. We know we can do better.”
Meanwhile, Kizer said, WCRC will continue to actively monitor the safety of the culvert previously slated for replacement next year while looking for alternative sources to fund the project.