OFFICIAL’S OWN TREE REMOVAL PERMIT AXED

lilleston-homeThe home of Elizabeth Lilleston, Fair Haven’s code enforcement officer. Below, her husband, Richard, looks at one of two trees that were to be removed from their Woodland Drive property. (Photos by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

lilleston-home1

A permit issued by Fair Haven’s code enforcement officer allowing her to remove two trees from her own property has been yanked by the mayor following an outcry from neighbors.

Amid complaints of questionable ethics, and after  an inquiry by redbankgreen Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Mike Halfacre rescinded the permit that tree-law enforcer Elizabeth Lilleston issued on her Woodland Drive home, which she and her husband sold to a developer earlier this month.

“That can’t happen,” Halfacre said within minutes of hearing about the permit. “Everyone has to know it can’t happen that way.”

Lilleston, though, said she discussed the propriety of authorizing her own permit with borough Clerk Allyson Cinquegrana, and together they concluded that no alternative procedure existed.

“I said, ‘this is a little tricky because it’s my property,'” Lilleston told redbankgreen.

Already mired in a drawn-out debate over changes to its tree preservation ordinance, Fair Haven officials found themselves presented with a new quandary: when the trees to be cut down are on the property of the person who normally issues the permits, who signs the dotted line?

The issue came to light at the August 10 meeting of Fair Haven’s planning board, when Buttonwood Investors, which purchased Lilleston’s property for $1.5 million five days earlier, was heard on a three-lot subdivision of the property. Neighbors raised questions and concerns about Lilleston plans to remove the trees, and the fact that she signed off on the permit to do so.

Borough ordinance requires the code enforcement officer’s signature for any tree removal that falls within the ordinance’s purview.

But Lilleston said she and Cinquegrana discussed the question of authorization when Lilleston applied to take down two trees back in the spring.

Seeing no other way of going about it, Lilleston, in preparation for the sale of her property, at 118 Woodland, said she went through the normal process of hiring a certified tree expert to inspect the two trees in question – a tall black birch and a massive two-stemmed tulip poplar.

The expert, Christian Avery, of Red Bank’s Avery Tree Experts, deemed the two trees on her acre-plus in need of removal. The birch, in Lilleston’s backyard, was found to be dying, and the poplar, on the side of her white colonial, posed a threat to the house, according to the application.

Knowing no other course for the permit, and anticipating the public perception problem, she and Cinquegrana inked the OK on the permit on May 5.

“There was no stealth involved,” Lilleston said. “It was just so above-board. I can’t think of anything else we could’ve done to make it any more lily-white.”

The trees have not yet been removed, and it will now be up to an outside source to determine if Lilleston and her husband, Richard, will get another permit to do so. Halfacre said the borough will contact Rumson Code Enforcement Officer Frederick André — himself on the griddle for cutdown permits he issued in his borough — to evaluate the couple’s application.

When reached at her home Wednesday, Lilleston said she knew her signature on the application, as well as removing the large trees, could potentially cause a stir among neighbors, but not to the extent that it did.

“Yes, (the criticism) would have been less harsh if I never did it,” Lilleston said of the self-permit. “That’s Monday morning quarterbacking.”

But what was the alternative? she asked.

She said by hiring a certified tree expert to ensure the trees were, in fact, in need of removal, she did her due diligence. She also dismissed any notion that the expert, who is also listed on her application as the contractor who will remove the trees, would falsely deem them diseased and unsafe.

A member of the borough shade tree commission and a self-proclaimed “tree person,” Lilleston said, “It’s not always in your best interest to just take down a tree. There are a lot of tree companies that just say yes. These are the guys who know the business.”

When he first caught wind of the permit Wednesday afternoon, Halfacre said he would have suggested Lilleston do things differently by seeking an outside source to process the application.

And to avoid any conflicts and perception problems, he ordered Administrator Theresa Casagrande to pull Lilleston’s approval and move it to Rumson.

“I am concerned about it. I’m glad it was brought to my attention,” he said. “That’s not the way I even remotely want to do business. We have to nip it in the bud.”