ZB hears about plant plans at Essex Green

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Zoning Board of Adjustment heard another hour of testimony about the revised site plan for the redevelopment of the Essex Green Shopping Center at its Jan. 17 meeting, and again did not vote after determining there would not be enough time to consider the plan at the meeting as two additional applicants on the agenda had yet to testify. In a continuation of the Dec. 20 meeting, landscape architect Michael Szura of Lagan Engineering, the firm hired by shopping center owner Clarion Partners, answered questions from the public concerning the planting and replanting of trees in the property’s parking lot.

West Orange resident Alana Amaya asked Szura about the specific trees planned for the parking lot, and how many are native to New Jersey.

“I appreciate that many of the shade trees listed are native,” Amaya said at the meeting. “But my concern is that many of the plants and some of the shrubs are not.”

According to Szura, the Pacific shore juniper, the Chinese juniper and the Japanese garden juniper, among others, are not native to this area of New Jersey. Amaya then asked if any ornamental, evergreen, deciduous, ground cover, perennial or ornamental grasses that are native to New Jersey would be planted at Essex Green.

“There are a significant number of native species in the plan,” Szura said at the meeting. “We’re really focusing on bringing innovative and adaptive shade trees, for instance, shade trees like the red maple and the liquidambar. The birches are native to the eastern United States, although not commonly found in this part of New Jersey.”

Szura said that the redbud tree is native to the state while the crab apple is not.

“The shade trees are predominantly native and, as we get lower down the list with perennials and groundcovers, fewer of them are natives. That’s appropriate for an environment like a shopping center and for the native landscape.”

West Orange resident Sally Malanga asked Szura about the purpose of having trees in a parking lot. Szura answered that there could be a number of reasons that vary from site to site, based on the community’s needs.

“There are a number of reasons,” he said. “It could be an architectural scale question, it could be for shade, it could be for habitat, it could be for producing oxygen. It could be for a variety of reasons.”

Szura also explained the “heat island effect,” which is when paved areas in developed or urban communities like West Orange build up more heat than rural areas, especially in the summer months.

“They tend to get hotter and stay hotter longer, during summer months in particular, because of all the surfaces that reflect light and heat,” he said, adding that paved areas are hotter than “areas that have significant green or open space, where heat is absorbed by other services like oil and water temperature.”

West Orange town forester John Linson testified at the meeting as well, offering his input on the site plan. Linson made several requests for changes to the plan while also highlighting some of its positive aspects.

“When they originally developed the site, they didn’t complete the ring of trees along Rooney Circle,” Linson said at the meeting. “It stopped at the ShopRite area and there were a lot of missing trees. Some of the maintenance of the property left a lot to be desired.”

Linson said that he walked the site and identified trees that needed to be removed because they were in poor or declining health. The updated and current plan addresses those trees, but Linson said he would also like to see Clarion address snow removal and storage.

“They currently plow all of the snow in the Macy’s lot on the uphill side, so when it melts it creates this huge ice arena across the parking lot,” Linson said. “Also, when they plow snow into these islands it damages the shrubbery. So we really want to plan where it’s going to go. I would love to see the Zoning Board require a snow-removal strategy and a snow-storage strategy.”

Linson added that he also wants to see a maintenance system for the trees in the parking lot.

“There isn’t a professional monitoring system for the trees for insects, disease and fertilization, and monitoring of soil samples,” he said. “Some soils have been contaminated with salt and calcium, and when they’re reconstructing and replanting, they should dig out and replace that soil.”

Linson said he wants a state-licensed tree expert overseeing the maintenance of the trees placed into the parking lot. And a yearly plan that accounts for planting, fertilizing and water monitoring would help the trees on the site flourish, he said.

“Integrated pest management is a big factor when you have qualified people coming,” he said. “At what point do we need to spray a tree or treat them for insects or problems? Developing a maintenance plan is something I’d like to see. Obviously I’d like to see as many trees as possible to the greatest extent possible.

The Zoning Board will hold a special meeting Thursday, Jan. 31, to hear additional testimony on the Essex Green plan. The public will be permitted to ask questions at that meeting.

Photos by Amanda Valentovic