Newton Town Council Votes Down Tree Protection and Tree Bank Ordinances

Resident Fred Judge provided estimates to the council about the ordinances. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Wayne McCabe speaks at the meeting. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Dennis McConnell, a landowner within the town. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
John Nuss offered a realtor's perspective. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Kent Hardmeyer of the shade tree commission speaks. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Anwar Qarmout addresses the council. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Karen Loughran asks if those who currently own land could be grandfathered in. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Jessica Caldwell, town planner, speaks more in depth about the ordinances. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller
Councilman Kevin Elvidge speaks about the ordinances. Credits: Jennifer Jean Miller

NEWTON, NJ - Members of the Town of Newton Newton Town Council, unanimously voted down two ordinances at their Monday night council meeting, one for a tree protection ordinance, and its partner ordinance, a tree bank ordinance.

The ordinance for the tree bank was first discussed back in September, and reported by The Alternative Press. The tree protection, and tree bank ordinances were intended to make developers accountable for the types of trees removed, and for replacement of them. If a developer did not wish to replace a tree on their property, it was proposed to have them authorized to pay into a "tree bank," at $50 per 8-inch caliper tree. At the initial council meeting when the tree bank was first proposed, three members of the council, Joe Ricciardo (now deputy mayor), Dan Flynn, and Kevin Elvidge, were all uncertain if there was a need, and their concerns ranged from overregulation, to the difficulties between commercial and residential properties (indicating the ordinances might be a hardship for residents).

The idea for the ordinance stemmed from concerns of an aggressive removal of trees in the past, especially in areas of steep slopes. Elvidge countered in September, however, he was surprised from aerial shots that he thought Newton still appeared fairly wooded.

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The shade tree commission recommended it, and helped to craft the ordinances with town planner, Jessica Caldwell, as well as the town attorney. There were two town attorneys who guided in the process, Mark Hontz, who ended his term of service with the town at the end of 2012, and Ursula Leo, who began her tenure with the town in 2013.

The trees in the final ordinance up for approval would need to be 5-inches in diameter or greater, to require authorization for removal. Those who would need the blessing of the town to remove the trees, would be anyone who owns a property with trees, whether residential or commercial, on a lot which could be subdivided into three building lots. Those found removing trees of minimally the proposed dimensions, would be subject to fines starting at $100, and maxing out at $2,000.

There were few available seats in the meeting room on Monday night, with one-half of the room mostly occupied by those there to provide their feedback on the tree ordinances, and the other side, with those there to listen to the Vision Plan (discussed after the meeting's intermission).

Fred Judge was the first resident to speak. He said the tree ordinances applied more to residential properties than commercial.

"There's about 115 lots, one out of 22 homeowners are affected," he said.

He estimated a single-family home with 50 to 75 trees to be removed at 10-inches each, would run a homeowner between $25,000 to $37,000, to clear the lot of the trees. Judge said he feared the ordinances as is would either cause residents to abandon their  taxes, or discourage further growth in town.

"I don't see there's a need for it," said Judge. "An average tree will cost about $1,000."

Wayne McCabe agreed with Judge, then also brought up what he said were other technical points.

"If you look at both ordinances, it doesn't talk about minor subdivisions," said McCabe. "There's a quandary. We don't want to impose a hardship on residents of the town."

There was also a term, "pleasure ground," which McCabe felt did not belong in the ordinance, since it had not been defined previously.

"You're asking for a lot of money expended by the applicant," McCabe summed up.

He suggested the council amend the ordinances or tear them up.

Dennis McConnell, another resident, said he has a large parcel of land, which requires consistent tree maintenance. He said on his 20 acres in town, he would not be permitted to cut down 5-inch nuisance Sumac trees without prior permission, trees that could harm someone (such as ones damaged during Hurricane Sandy), or trees which could be used for firewood.

"If there is a public purpose with this ordinance, we should see if there is another way to do it," McConnell proposed.

John Nuss, a realtor, said the ordinance was redundant, because of soil conservation measures the DEP already has in place.

"It's going to affect a lot of properties," Nuss said. "I think Newton's got a lot of opportunities, and this would take it away."

He looked at the council, "I really wish you'd take a good look at this."

Several of the previous speakers offered their suggestions to help re-craft the ordinance.

Kent Hardmeyer, a member of the town's shade tree commission, was the next to take the microphone.

"If you're looking to tar and feather anyone, we [the shade tree commission] recommended it," he said. "Maybe there can be some amendments and improvements."

The area by the Quick Chek was one section of town, brought up at points throughout the evening, including by Hardmeyer, who said he resides close to it. Many trees had been removed from that section.

"The planning board could not address that," Hardmeyer said. "There was no ordinance to prevent that from happening."

"Trees have value, if we're going to take them down, there should be a good reason," Hardmeyer continued. "Before the board just chucks this ordinance, some say they want to work together. We'd like to work with these folks. We want to keep these trees to keep Newton beautiful."

Anwar Qarmout, another property owner, said laws overseas where he is originally from, prevent trees from being taken down,

"I am grateful I live in New Jersey where trees are all over the place," he said.

Qarmout told the council, "I think you took a sworn oath, you'll be our presenters. I don't see why we're having this problem."

Karen Loughran is a property owner with a large property, and long driveway by Sussex County Community College, which several people previously had spoken about. She was considering building another home on the land she owns, and Judge had estimated with the trees she would need to take down and replace, it could run about $100,000 or more, he said deeming a property worthless.

"Can we be grandfathered in?" Loughran asked. "I want my own buffer."

Loughran said that when the college built its new parking lot, they replaced the trees with pine trees.

"I'm not looking to destroy property I've worked so hard to build," she said.

Caldwell said both ordinances were designed to work hand-in-hand, and to follow up on two existing ordinances. She also said replacement trees could be half of their caliper. Originally, the ordinances were planned for major subdivisions, she said, however, the town's new counsel said it should be applied instead across the board, or else it diminishes the importance of the ordinance, if it is not applied to all properties.

"I think there's a lot of work here," said Ricciardo. "I would like to see it tabled, and come up with something reasonable."

As before, Flynn and Elvidge also agreed they thought it was over-regulation, that could impact the residents.

Council was told by counsel Angelo Bolcato, who was sitting in for Leo on Monday night, it was better to vote "no" on the ordinances, if they disagreed, rather than amend the existing ordinances.

All council members, including mayor Sandra Diglio, and councilwoman Kristen Becker voted "no" on both.

Several residents within the audience who had spoken out about the tree ordinances, smiled at one another, and shook hands with each other, after the council cast the unanimous votes.


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