Residents, officials: We must save trees

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
West Orange resident Nicole Ruffo speaks about the tree ordinance and town forester John Linson’s contract at the Jan. 23 Township Council meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Town forester John Linson’s contract was renewed for the 2018 calendar year with a vote of 4-1 at the Jan. 23 West Orange Township Council meeting, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak being the only opposing vote. At the meeting residents and council members expressed concerns about both the town’s tree ordinance and Linson’s service as forester, saying that they were disappointed about the number of trees that have been cut down in West Orange in recent years.

Resident Sally Malanga said the tree ordinance, which allows for property owners to cut down up to three trees per calendar year without obtaining a permit so long as a report is filed with the town, is faulty. She also said she wants to see more consistent enforcement of the ordinance and said Linson is at fault for that.

“We have a tree ordinance that is undermined by inconsistent enforcement, to the distress of the town,” Malanga said at the meeting. “We can and should do better. We should set out to engage a forester to not only enforce the ordinance, but act in the spirit of it, which is to prevent indiscriminate, uncontrolled and excessive removal and cutting of trees.”

Nicole Ruffo, an Overlook Avenue resident, said that she was disappointed with how trees in her neighborhood had been cut down in the past. She had seen the forester and members of the administration walking around the street marking which trees to cut.

“They asked residents if they wanted trees (in front of their houses) to come down, and because a resident wanted it gone, it was gone,” Ruffo said at the meeting. “I felt there was no transparency and then it was done. No one held any responsibility for why healthy ones had to come down.”

Joyce Rudin, a resident who worked with the council to draft the tree ordinance, said there are revisions to be made to the law to better protect healthy trees from being cut down. She also said Linson’s records of trees removed in town are unreliable and that residents should become a bigger part of the tree-removal process.

“There was no proof of a neighborhood being notified of when trees were supposed to come down so that they could respond,” Rudin said at the meeting. “Over the last five years, I think all of us have seen how the beauty of the town has been diminished, and that I do hold Mr. Linson responsible for.”

Councilman Victor Cirilo said that rather than not renewing Linson’s contract, he wants to work to make sure the tree ordinance is being enforced properly and look at changing parts of it.

“I don’t know where the line is between our town forester and our policy not being clear or properly followed,” he said at the meeting. “We really need to start taking inventory and watching deforestation.”

Cirilo said he wants to make several changes to the tree ordinance.

“Maybe we’re not being aggressive enough in assuring that we’re doing the best that we can to save the trees,” he said. “We need a stricter definition of a diseased tree and a more conservative number of what’s allowed to be cut without a permit.”

Krakoviak agreed with Cirilo’s statements about updating the tree ordinance but still felt that an additional change was needed, leading him to vote against renewing Linson’s contract.

“We need a lot of work to make sure that that ordinance is working, and I think Councilman Cirilo made some good points,” Krakoviak said at the meeting. “But I’m persuaded not only by what I’ve heard tonight but also what I’ve seen over the last few years. I think we need a change here.”

Council President Susan McCartney, who serves as the body’s representative to the Environmental Commission, agreed with Cirilo about updating the tree ordinance and continuing to retain Linson as town forester.

“With my involvement in the commissions and activities and programs that I’ve done in town, I disagree,” she said in response to Krakoviak’s comments. “I want to go the route of looking at work sessions to enforce and firm up our policies, as opposed to blaming the forester.”

According to Linson, West Orange’s tree ordinance is liberal compared to other towns in the area.

“Most towns have something that says you have to replace a tree (on private property), or they contribute to a fund that puts a tree somewhere else in the town,” Linson told the Chronicle in a phone interview on Jan. 29. “That’s something to look into. The summonses that I hand out are few and far between — I can’t enforce what’s not there.”

Linson also cited changes in utility wire rules that prevent tree branches from being within 10 feet of the wires, as well as the emerald ash borer and yellow ash disease — which infect ash trees — as reasons that trees sometimes must be cut down. He also said that when looking at whether or not a town tree should be cut down, one of his primary concerns is safety.

“I like to err on the side of public safety,” he said. “If I don’t think we can prune it, I think we should remove it. We can’t cut branches or roots and expect a tree to withstand wind and weather. You do everything you can to keep it safe, but if there are strong winds it’s hard.”