By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Fair Haven officials aren’t quite out of the woods yet when it comes to adapting to changes to the borough’s tree preservation ordinance. And now, they have a little company.
On Tuesday night, Rumson’s council suddenly found itself in the middle of a thorny debate over the efficacy of its tree preservation law after a Navesink Avenue property’s tree population was decimated last week, residents said.
Change to the ordinance and bolstered enforcement are likely, council members said.
Sparking the debate was Clean Ocean Action founder and executive director Cindy Zipf, who lives next door to 35 Navesink Avenue, where an “egregious act” of clear-cutting occurred a week ago, she told the council. Saws and excavators tore through the vacant lot, which is slated to be built upon, leaving only eight trees, Zipf’s husband, Rick Jones, said. Neighbors estimate 84 trees came down.
Problem: only 23 “trees” were allowed by permit to be cut down. A tree is not technically a tree in Rumson unless it’s four-inches in diameter and at least four-and-a-half-feet tall, meaning a property owner can put an ax to any tree that doesn’t fit those requirements.
Under Rumson’s ordinance, which was adopted in 2002, a permit is required to cut down any trees that meet or exceed that requirement. Owners are not allowed to cut down more than 40 percent of a property’s tree population; that’s considered clear-cutting.
Neighbors say an illegal clear-cutting occurred at 35 Navesink, and they’re riled up.
“I saw what was a beautiful wooded lot disappear before my eyes,” said Bill Wilby, of Holly Tree Lane. “If that’s not a case of clear-cutting, I don’t know what clear-cutting is.”
But Rumson officials say the owner of the property, which is only listed as Petcon at 35 Navesink LLC, and its contractors followed the proper procedures outlined in the ordinance.
It was a lack of enforcement, and perhaps some bumps by an excavator into some perfectly healthy and large trees that caused what and instantaneously change the character of the area, near the east end of the Navesink River, several neighbors said.
Shade Tree Commission Chairman Doug Spencer said he agreed that “what was done is hideous.”
“There were a lot of omissions, obviously, and it needs to be looked at,” Councilwoman Joan DeVoe said.
Residents suggested the borough council review the ordinance which they said works, for the most part as well as look into adding more oversight of the permitting process and the work being done.
One point of contention Tuesday was the way permits are handled.
In order to obtain a permit, a qualified tree expert must visit the property and sign off on which tree are to be removed. In Rumson’s case, the tree expert, Steven Becker, also was the contractor cutting down the trees on the property.
“It just seems backwards to me,” said Kate Grossarth, of Ward Avenue.
Mayor John Ekdahl, after hearing nearly two hours of concerns from the public, said he agreed that changes may be necessary, one of them being a third-party tree expert that’s not involved with the work being done on a property. He also said the property owner should sign the tree removal permit.
But he said the council, even though it has final say and oversight of the borough’s ordinance, doesn’t control changes to it. That’s up to the planning board, and he suggested residents provide input to that body.
As in Fair Haven, where the council is currently split on whether to revise its tree ordinance, Ekdahl said the borough is walking a fine line between what’s best for the community and personal property rights.
“It is sort of a work in progress, if you will, but we have to deal with it as we have it tonight,” he said. “I’m not saying it can’t be changed, because it can.”
Neighbors say change is necessary to prevent another case of a heavily wooded lot being reduced to a leveled property that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the area.
“The spirit, if not the letter, of the law was violated,” Zipf said. “We’ve got to fix this in this town because it’s happening again and again. And it’s got to stop.”