The stumps and sawdust left on a hill that had been covered for decades with trees and brush drew shock and complaints. The unexpected tree-clearing, some Radnor residents told township commissioners, was outrageous, distressing, and “a blow to our prestige.”
The trees — on a four-acre traffic island along Lancaster Avenue near the heavily trafficked I-476 interchange — were brought down in early January without warning. The sloping area was left barren, exposing a view of the highway’s sound wall and creating what some say is an eyesore at the region’s entrance to the township.
Moreover, the clear-cutting cost more than $46,000, emptying a private fund set up by a local trust. And neither township commissioners nor PennDot were consulted before the money was spent and the area cleared.
That was enough to stir protests in the Main Line community — a township where a special committee oversees trees, and where officials installed a 23-foot-high rock cairn and a large stone-and-mesh griffin at the interchange after the highway was built.
“I can’t imagine that there’s someone who works for this township who lacks so much understanding of the people that live in this township that they don’t understand how outraged we would be,” resident Charles Barber told the commissioners at their meeting Jan. 27. He demanded “answers of how this abomination occurred.”
The clear-cutting was funded by donations that had been earmarked for improving the area around the interchange. It removed trees that were diseased, invasive, or damaged by vines.
On its website, the township initially defended the clear-cutting, saying it “allows for more light to penetrate what was dark by vines.” But in late January, the commissioners suspended longtime Township Manager Robert Zienkowski for authorizing it. Days later, he submitted his resignation.
The board of commissioners formally accepted it Monday, without saying why Zienkowski was leaving after 10 years in the job. Zienkowski, 59, told The Inquirer on Wednesday that his departure was unrelated to the tree-clearing issue.
“Nope, nothing to do with it. It was just time to go,” he said. “Everybody’s asking about it, but … it’s just, it was a good opportunity to go.”
He also said he had received “dozens” of calls from people happy with the brush removal.
As commissioners approved his separation agreement — which includes $60,000, or four months’ pay, as well as a non-disparagement clause — residents at Monday’s meeting asked why they couldn’t read the agreement before the board voted.
“Is he resigning because he feels like it? Or is he resigning … because of some scandal?” resident Mark D’Onofrio asked. “A lot of people are curious about that, and right now, by keeping it a mystery, it’s going to have these questions continue on and on for weeks.”
Wealthy and populous Radnor has endured its share of scandal. The previous township manager, David A. Bashore, was removed in 2009 after paying himself and other employees unauthorized bonuses exceeding $500,000, and the solicitor resigned soon after. In 2017, then-Commissioners President Phil Ahr resigned after being arrested on child pornography charges; in September, he was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison.
Zienkowski replaced Bashore in 2010 and, by many accounts, turned the township around after a period of turmoil. “For 10 years, I’ve loved doing the job,” he said, “and I have just only positives to say about the community and the time I’ve spent here.”
He also said he left on good terms with the commissioners. Zienkowski “has done a fantastic job,” said the board president, Jack Larkin. “He leaves the township in a much, much, much better position than it was when he got here.”
At the meeting Monday, Larkin would not say why Zienkowski was departing. “We honestly don’t know all the specific reasons that he resigned, since this is his determination,” he said.
But his path to quitting seemed to start, or end, last month with the sudden removal of the trees.
In the interview, Zienkowski said that the Radnor Enhancement Community Trust, which funded beautification projects for the I-476 gateway to the township, had wanted to retire the trust and close its fund. Because the money had to be spent in the interchange area, he suggested clearing the traffic island, roughly across from Radnor High School and King of Prussia Road, because it was overgrown and had trees infested with ash borers and lantern flies.
Steve Bajus, one of the trust administrators, said Zienkowski’s account was accurate. The trust, funded by donations from area businesses, bankrolled many aesthetic projects in the past, but had been dormant and was losing money filing annual tax returns, he said.
“We were sitting there, with the money sitting there, so I did call Bob up, and I said, ‘Do you have any projects here?’” he said.
Bajus withdrew the fund’s remaining $46,427.41 and Zienkowski arranged for the tree clearing.
“I should’ve let the board know and made them aware...,” Zienkowski said, “and I took responsibility for that.”
Still, others were stunned by the process, and concerned the parcel would now need more work.
“There were no public meetings held, no township committees got a chance to vet the plans, and no post-clearing plans were submitted,” Radnor Conservancy president Lorna Atkinson told the commissioners. “We’ve lost storm water management and erosion control, habitat for birds and animals, trees working to clean the air … and buff our noise and highway pollution.”
The township also needed an agreement with PennDot before working on the parcel, but it won’t face a penalty. PennDot plans to meet with the township soon and consider an agreement for future maintenance of the land, spokesperson Brad Rudolph said.
At its late January meeting, Larkin said the board was “working on” implementing new policies to “ameliorate any harm that has occurred and prevent recurrence in the future” in response to the clear-cutting.
“We hear you and we are taking action,” he said.
Bill White, who was the township’s assistant manager, was appointed acting manager on Monday. The board hopes to complete the search for a new manager by June, Larkin said.
Even after the meeting, questions lingered for some.