CUT DOWN, BUILDER TRIES NEW TREE PLAN

The health of the tulip poplar at center, above, has been a pivotal issue in the dispute. Below, the developer’s latest tree plan. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

An ethics issue, arcane rules about tree removal and the opposition of neighbors have turned a three-house subdivision in Fair Haven that once appeared problem-free into a movable battle of wits and passions.

On Wednesday night, Buttonwood Investors returns to the planning board for yet another go-round over its Woodland Drive property.

This time, however, it has a new plan for dealing with trees.

The revised plan, submitted December 27, contains no narrative description of what it entails, only the schematic drawing shown above. Buttonwood principal Bob Susser and the company’s attorney, Brooks Von Arx, declined comment when contacted by redbankgreen.

According to planning board secretary Judy Fuller, the proposal calls for the removal of three trees, rather than the original seven. A comparison of the two plans appears to show that a much-debated tulip poplar, located smack in the middle of the footprint for the proposed northernmost of the houses, would still be removed.

The request marks the latest twist in a flap over trees in a town that has had its share of them.

Last month, the planning board narrowly rejected an appeal by Buttonwood of a tree-removal permit denial.

The board had previously approved the subdivision, which required no variances. That was after redbankgreen reported that the seller of the property, Elizabeth Lilleston, had also approved Buttonwood’s tree-removal plan in her capacity as code enforcement officer.

Lilleston, who with her husband sold the property for $1.5 million in early August, said she had discussed the potential conflict of interest with Clerk Allyson Cinquegrana last spring. But as no alternative review process was spelled out in borough laws, the matter stayed with Lilleston, who hired a tree expert and, on the basis of his report, approved the permit in May, she said.

After an outcry by neighbors, however, borough officials yanked the tree-removal permit and kicked the matter over to Rumson for review in another venue. But Rumson officials declined to get involved.

So the permit issue went to back to Fair Haven, to the desk of Administrator Theresa Casagrande, who rejected the permit after consulting an arborist, Bill Brooks of Red Bank. She concluded the permit would have allowed for the removal of a “significant specimen tree,” a classification that’s protected under borough ordinance.

After that, the matter went up on appeal to the planning board, amid uncertainty about jurisidiction. The ordinance says only that appeals should go to “a board,” planning board chairwoman Joan Jay told redbankgreen recently. “It doesn’t really spell out under which circumstances you go to which board.”

Casagrande “felt it should go to the planning board,” she said.  “But we don’t normally deal with trees.”

At a well-attended meeting in December, Brooks and an arborist for Buttonwood agreed that the tulip poplar, “while not diseased, is structurally unsound” and in danger of catastrophic failure of its giant twin trunks, Jay said.

“I wouldn’t know a tulip poplar if it came up and introduced itself to me,” Jay said. “But when I hear ‘catastrophic failure,’ my thought is that I don’t want it over my house.”

Jay, however, was in the minority on a 3-2 vote by the board to reject the appeal.

But even with the focus on the poplar, Carrie Eustace, who grew up in and again lives in a house directly across Woodland Drive from the site, said in her view, the tree is “a side issue.

“I think the tree is worth preserving,” she said. But the bigger concern, she said, is that “squishing – and I say squishing – three houses onto that lot is not in keeping with the aesthetic of this neighborhood. It’ll no longer be one of the prettiest streets in Fair Haven.”

The hearing is at 7:15 p.m. at borough hall.