WESTFIELD, NJ — Not yet 6-feet-tall, two saplings on Boulevard stand in stark contrast to the tall, thick shade trees forming the forest canopy of the residential street.
A builder planted the saplings in accordance with a court settlement that brought him reduced fines for cutting down trees on three separate properties, removals the town claims were violations of its tree preservation ordinance.
The town originally sought to fine Elshiekh Enterprises LLC, of Kenilworth, $66,000 for removing 11 trees. Under the settlement agreement, those fines have been reduced to $20,500.
“I’ve been [building] in Westfield for 9 years,” said Hany El Shiekh, principal of Elshiekh Enterprises LLC, which has also build a number of homes in Scotch Plains. “I’ve never heard of that ordinance being enforced. That was not explained as part of their permits.”
Elshiekh sued the town in September after the municipality’s code enforcement office refused to issue a certificate of occupancy for the home his company had built on Boulevard. The town claimed it refused to issue the certificate because he had not paid fines levied for trees he removed on the property.
A letter the town sent to the company states that the Tree Preservation Commission had levied the fines for the unauthorized removal of 11 trees on the three properties: six on Moss Avenue, two on Boulevard and three on Palsted Avenue.
El Shiekh, principal of the Kenilworth-based building company, said he was forced to bring his complaint in Superior Court because his client was at risk of losing their mortgage on the new home on Boulevard when the town would not issue the certificate of occupancy.
In 2019, the Town Council had updated its tree preservation ordinance drawing attention to the local laws.
“The tree preservation ordinance was updated to implement more stringent requirements with an eye toward thoughtful preservation,” said Kim Forde, spokeswoman for the town. “When a property owner has violated terms of the ordinance, they are issued fines and are entitled to an appeal process.”
In the case of Elshiekh Enterprises, Forde said, the municipality allowed for reduced fines if El Sheikh planted certain trees.
The settlement approved by the court in October 2019 includes the reduction of fines for the tree removal on Boulevard from $10,000 to $6,000. It mandates that Elshiekh Enterprises pay $4,000 for the planting of nine trees to replace those that he cut. He also had to plant two street trees on Boulevard, the settlement shows.
Under the stipulation of settlement, the fines for the alleged violation on Palsted Avenue were reduced to $6,000, and Elshiekh agreed to pay for the planting of nine replacement trees at a total cost of $4,500. He must also plant one street tree in the public right of way, the settlement shows.
The fines for the six trees removed at the Moss Avenue property have been reduced to $10,000 and instead of planting 20 replacement trees himself, Elshiekh is contributing $10,000 to the town’s tree trust fund, according to the settlement.
By January, Elshiekh had met portions of the requirements of the settlement agreement, Forde said.
“The developer has satisfied the requirement for the payment of penalties and installation of plantings for … Boulevard,” she said. “The penalties and/or plantings for the other properties remain unfulfilled as these projects are still under construction. A certificate of occupancy for the properties will not be issued without completion of these requirements.”