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Environmental Commission Sends Tree Ordinance Recommendations To Township Council

Environmental Commission member Arnold Schmidt makes a point with a picture he took of a tree in the Municipal Complex.

Work that began in October showed some results December 5, when the Environmental Commission sent several recommended changes to the township tree ordinance to the Township Council.

The recommendations involve changing the definition of a tree in terms of trunk thickness and reinstating a cap of 25 percent on the amount of tree replacement that developers could make up through contributions to the township’s Tree Fund. The cap was removed in a February 2015 revision of the township’s tree ordinance.

Commissioners said they would work with the Shade Tree Commission, with whom they have formed a special sub-committee, to work on long-term changes to the tree ordinance.

The Commission last discussed changes to the tree ordinance at its October 17 meeting, when Commissioner Arnold Schmidt called inadequate the $30 per tree that developers have to pay into the tree fund if they cannot replace trees that they have taken down.

It was at that October meeting that the idea of a joint sub-committee with the Shade Tree Commission was agreed upon.

At the December meeting, Schmidt said that he understood that the township engineer would act to raise the tree replacement fee to $300. The tree ordinance stipulates that the engineer is the person who reviews the replacement fee annually and makes any necessary changes.

“That $300 doesn’t even include labor,” he said. “So where somebody was paying $3,000 into the shade tree fund, now they’ll have to pay in $30,000.”

“We hope that will make them think, maybe we don’t want to take down all these trees,” Schmidt said. “This is hopefully some kind of a deterrent to stop the developers from doing what they’re doing.”

The ordinance delineates the number of trees that a developer must plant when trees of varying circumferences are removed. The ordinance stipulates that if the trees cannot be planted on the site slated for redevelopment, then an alternative site should be chosen.

If no site can be found, the ordinance stipulates that the developer must pay a set fee – currently $30 – be paid for each tree that must be replaced.

In line with the issue of tree replacement, Schmidt also took issue with the current ordinance’s definition of a tree, and how developers may have been profiting from that definition.

The ordinance doesn’t recognize trees that are smaller than four inches in circumference, three feet from its base, which means that when developers remove trees that fall into that category, they do not have to replace them.

“So in other words, these developers have been knocking down hundreds of thousands of trees that are three and three-quarter inches or less, seven, 10 feet high, good healthy trees and they don’t have to pay a penny for them, nor replace them,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt showed four pictures of trees in the Municipal Complex and Middlebush Park that he said were smaller than the township’s definition.

“The point is there’s a lot of trees like this the developers are knocking down all over the place,” he said.” Those trees, he said, are not being recorded.

Schmidt said he wanted the tree definition and the replacement cap taken care of before the joint sub-committee – of which he is a member – started working because, he said, “sub-committees drag things out.”

“It’s a big ordinance, it’s going to take months and months and months and months,” he said.

Commissioner Robin Suydam, also a member of the sub-committee, objected to sending teh recommendations to the Council, saying, “I think this is committee work.”

“It is committee work if you want to wait six months,” Schmidt said.

“You’re asking this group to circumvent a committee that we just formed,” Suydam said.

“I’m asking for people’s opinions,” Schmidt said.

Suydam relented, but only after the Commission agreed to include reinstatement of the tree replacement cap in its recommendations.

“Right now a developer can buy out of everything,” she said. “I think it’s important that we put the cap back in there. It’s just as important as the definition of a tree. If we want to do a surgical strike, I think we should put them both in there.”

Also changed was Schmidt’s original suggestion that the tree definition be dropped from four inches to one inch.

The final measurement was set at 2.5 inches, after Tara Kenyon, the township’s Open Space Consultant, said that circumference would be easier to defend than one inch. She said other towns, and a statewide “smart growth” organization, New Jersey Future, recommend 2.5-inch circumferences in tree ordinances.

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