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Village Council­— Street trees spark debate

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A standing-room only crowd filled Council chambers Monday night, when villagers weighed in on proposed changes to the downtown streetscape, with many expressing distress about the prospect of losing downtown trees. About 45 people attended the meeting.

The item was discussion only, and Council did not vote. According to Council President Judith Hempfling, Council will again consider the streetscape topic, and may make a decision on whether to move ahead at its Aug. 6 meeting, when Village Manager Laura Curliss will present a financial analysis of the project. On Monday Curliss was out of town and did not attend the meeting.

Curliss last month proposed the changes, which involve removing all street trees on Xenia Avenue this year and replacing them with new trees; replacing current streetlamps; burying electric lines; making several parking spaces smaller and adding an additional space; and repairing sidewalks. Repairing hazardous sidewalks is the impetus for the streetscape project, which Curliss has stated became more ambitious because it makes sense, once significant changes are being made, to address other problems as well. The additional downtown problems being addressed include street trees whose roots are damaging sidewalks; streetlights that provide insufficient light for pedestrians downtown; and lack of sufficient bicycle parking.

In the last week, the debate around the proposed project has heated up in town, with some villagers protesting each day on Xenia Avenue, holding up signs to “Save the Trees,” and others signing petitions.

But the scope of the proposed changes is reasonable because the Village would be addressing longstanding problems at one time rather than piecemeal, according to Council member Karen Wintrow in an opening statement Monday night. Wintrow also stated that the Xenia Avenue changes have been under consideration for years.

“This holistic and forward-thinking focus is how we should tackle all other projects,” Wintrow said. “This project is long overdue.”

However, the process around the project has been faulty due to a lack of public input, according to Council President Judith Hempfling, who described the situation as “Council’s fault.”

“We didn’t stop and think that we need a process to hear from the community” about such a significant project, Hempfling said.

About 20 villagers spoke on the topic, with about three to one opposing it. However, speakers on both sides of the issue agreed that the lack of citizen input had contributed to villagers’ upset over the issue.

“There’s a feeling of a loss of respect, that an open dialogue was deliberately bypassed,” Carol Allin said, adding, “A truly holistic approach will not disdain to include matters of the heart and spirit as well as the mind.”

According to Nadia Malarkey, “A lot of this could have been avoided,” with a more open process.
Most who spoke in opposition to the streetscape redesign focused on their desire to save downtown trees.
“It’s a great benefit to see the pear trees blossom in spring,” Steve Hetzler said, stating his belief that people come to the village “because of the graciousness and charm and a lot of that is the sylvan aspect of Yellow Springs.”

“Yellow Springs is a place where people and the community are cared for, and trees are part of the community,” Denise Runyon said.

Elizabeth Price presented Council with a petition signed by more than 500 people who want to save the trees, she said.

But the main reason to remove the Bradford pears is safety, several speakers said. Because the trees have grown too large for the space, their roots buckle the sidewalk and uneven sidewalks are dangerous.

Sarah Case said she has fallen several times on the sidewalks in front of The Winds and Dino’s Cappocinos.
“If the trees need to come down for safety reasons, they should come down,” she said.

All speakers agreed that making downtown sidewalks safer is critical, but they urged Council to consider approaches other than removing the trees. Local sculptor Jon Barlow Hudson recently took his diamond cutter downtown to even out buckled sidewalks, and this approach could provide a short-term solution, according to Harvey Paige.

“Safety should be taken care of immediately. Level off all the sidewalks around town,” he said.

But there are other reasons to replace the trees, according to Anna Bellisari, president of the Yellow Springs Tree Committee, which supports the proposed redesign.

“We on the Tree Committee have a commitment to trees, and we don’t like to see live trees cut down,” Bellisari said. But the trees need to come down not only for safety but because they’re an invasive species that threatens the Glen, and because their size means they are struggling in their current locations.

“We should not be looking at these as healthy trees,” she said. “They are under stress, they don’t have enough soil and water. They’re old and they’re weak.”

Several speakers encouraged Council to consider alternative solutions to the current streetscape problems, especially involving tree removal.

“I like efficiency but not so much that I want to make a quick decision without taking the time to consider creative options,” Audrey Smith said.

Some emphasized that such consideration would involve taking more time.

“The process needs to be slowed down,” said Carole Cobbs. “It’s not fair to the community.”

And the issues go beyond safety and trees, according to Pat Dewees, who urged Council to keep in mind local values and strengths before moving to change downtown to a generic look in hopes of attracting more tourists.
“The biggest risk is creating the village as a brand, and letting go of the integrity of our community,” Dewees said.

Council will discuss the proposed streetscape design again at its Aug. 6 meeting.

Other items of July 16 Council business will be in next week’s paper.


One Response to “Village Council­— Street trees spark debate”

  1. Jamie Austin says:

    After visiting Yellow Springs several times my husband and I have decided to move there within the next two years. Part of that decision was based on the unique look of the town, which includes the lush street-front greenery which is so often lacking in other towns. I’d hate to see the town become another cookie-cutter tourist trap.

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