By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
By last Wednesday, Zoe Gallagher figured it might be too late. By 7:30a Saturday, she was sure.
That’s when she was awakened by sound of trucks and chainsaws. Looking out her window, the 12-year-old knew that there was no chance she’d be able to save the dozen trees that were about to be cut down across the street.
Zoe, who is the president of the environmental club at Knollwood School, was a step behind in her fight for the doomed trees on Poplar Avenue. She hadn’t learned of their impending demise until Wednesday, the day after the home builder, Spencer Foxworth, won an appeal to cut down the trees in order to make room for two new homes on the property. He had previously been denied permission by Elizabeth Lilleston, chairwoman of the shade tree commission and Fair Haven’s code enforcement officer.
“So what’s the point of having a tree ordinance?” Zoe asked, as she watched workers load trucks with tree limbs and brush. “It’s like there isn’t any. You just waste a day presenting the case because you’re going to get it anyway.”
When she heard that Foxworth won approval from the council, Zoe rounded up about 30 signatures from neighbors for a petition, which she presented at borough hall. She made contact with Lilleston and council president Jon Peters, who explained how local government works, and why Foxworth was allowed to remove the trees.
Until three years ago, Fair Haven property owners weren’t required to ask permission to cut down trees on their property. But in June 2007, the borough passed its tree preservation ordinance, which does just that for trees of a certain size, and also lays out reasons the borough may deny requests.
Lilleston denied the Foxworth application because his property has two of the largest Norway spruces in Monmouth County, and he was asking to remove more than 20 percent of the trees on the land. But the law also gives the council the power to grant an appeal, which it did last Tuesday.
Foxworth is mayor Mike Halfacre’s brother-in-law; Halfacre recused himself from the council discussion.
Halfacre maintains that a successful appeal doesn’t equate to reckless enviro-slaying. Property owners are usually required to replant trees, and in Foxworth’s case, will do so on the property, but at different locations on it, he said.
And although the council is kept busy with tree appeals there’s at least one a month, Halfacre said rarely do those asking to remove trees walk out of borough hall without having to replenish what they’re destroying.
“Almost always, it’s a matter of replacement trees,” Halfacre said.
Often these appeals are made successfully, Halfacre admits, because there are valid reasons why the property owner must remove the trees. In a case such as Foxworth’s, in which planning and zoning regulations allow him to build the two homes, Halfacre said the council can’t elevate the value of the trees over the value of the homes. Upholding Lilleston’s denial would have essentially have denied Foxworth’s ability to construct on the property, Halfacre said.
“When it comes down to tree versus house, and the zoning regulations says this is where you can put this house, the house wins,” he said.
Zoe sees it through a different lens.
“I just want to see people respect the trees,” she said. “We shouldn’t look at the trees as an obstacle.”
And although the trees across the street from her are now gone, Zoe says she learned a valuable lesson in local politics. It hasn’t scared her away, either.
“It’s not a one-time thing,” she said. “I’m going to protect whatever trees are coming down in Fair Haven for no apparent reason.”