TREE ‘MURDER’ ALLEGED IN RUMSON

c-zipfCindy Zipf, right, shows residents photos of her neighbor’s property, which she says was clear-cut of its trees. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The quest by a Rumson couple to prove that local officials negligently allowed the “murder” of numerous trees on a residential building lot drew a packed house of lawyers, experts and crestfallen neighbors to Monday night’s planning board meeting.

With their appeal of tree-removal permit granted by Frederick André, the borough’s tree conservation officer, Clean Ocean Action founder and executive director Cindy Zipf and her husband, Rick Jones say they hope to win an acknowledgment that mistakes were made and stricter enforcement of a tree-protection ordinance.

A lawyer by their side, Zipf and Jones paged through a sheaf of documents showing, they argue, that the property next door to their home at 37 Navesink Avenue was the site of a “murder of trees” that violated the ordinance.

The alleged slaughter could have been prevented had André, who is also the planning board’s secretary, properly done his job, they say.

“The tree conservation officer failed to implement basic procedures. The tree conservation officer allowed a clear-cut at 35 Navesink Avenue,” said Andrew Provence, a lawyer with Ansell, Grimm and Aaron. “What happened at 35 Navesink is plainly a clear-cut. To call it anything else is an insult to this borough, this board, my clients and the people of Rumson.”

Zipf and Jones say that from June 1 to 7, the property next door to their home was cleared of about 65 trees, or roughly 77 percent of the lot’s population.

The ordinance prohibits the removal of more than 40 percent of the trees on “unimproved” areas of a lot. The term “unimproved area” designates  those that are more than 15 feet outside the limits of any existing or proposed principle structure and more than five feet outside any existing or proposed accessory structure, according to documents provided by Provence.

The property, which once housed a 3,000-square-foot home, was cleared to make room for a 5,000-square-foot dwelling with a pool and cabana, Zipf said.

Besides substantially altering the character of the neighborhood, which is near the Navesink River at the corner of Blackpoint Horseshoe Street, Zipf and Jones say the removal of trees “substantially changed” the drainage pattern along the shared boundary between the two properties, resulting in pools of standing water at their driveway after heavy rains.

“It greatly changed that corner,” Jones said. “You look one way on the street and it’s completely shade. You look another way down the other end of the street and it’s completely shade. You look at that lot and it’s completely open.”

All this could have been avoided had the proper procedures been followed, the couple said.

The borough, which requires a tree removal permit for any tree more than four-inches in diameter and at four-and-a-half-feet tall, issued a permit without an evaluation and signature by a tree expert on the application, Provence said. The property owner, listed as Petcon at 35 Navesink LLC, also failed to provide a required tree removal plan, he said.

A representative from Petcon claiming to be the only fully knowledgeable person on what happened at the property did not appear Monday.

Zipf and Jones also said André, in addition to issuing the incomplete permit that initially allowed 15 trees to be removed — another eight were subsequently approved for removal — failed to take enforcement measures when nine more trees were cut down in violation of the ordinance.

André also improperly calculated the permit fee, Provence said.

What Zipf and Jones really want is that the borough follow the law in the future, Zipf said.

“Tragically, the community is marred by what a developer has done on spec. It’s up to the town to make good on ensuring that we the people are going to be protected,” she said.

The board carried the appeal hearing to its September 12 meeting, when it anticipates hearing from André, Shade Tree Commission Chairman Doug Spencer, a tree expert and Petcon representative John Tsakiris.

“I would like to hear from Petcon and definitely know what was going on with them,” board member Rita Seaman said.