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Township Establishes Enhanced Protection For Area Shade Trees

Matthew Hersh

The Princeton Township Committee approved an ordinance that moved to protect trees on both public and private properties. The general purpose of the "shade tree" code is to preserve the Township's tree canopy cover of 38 percent, and to prevent clear-cutting trees, which was described as cutting down more than 20 percent of the trees on a single property. The measure will also create a permit process on proposed tree cutting outside the planning and site review processes, with penalties for illegal tree destruction as high as $1,250. Township Arborist Greg O'Neil said that while the new law goes deeper into the realm of private property, the intention is to not hinder progress by making it more difficult to remove trees. "This is good environmental practice," Mr. O'Neil said. "We are going to be very reasonable and flexible" in enforcing the measure. Flexibility was the key element at Monday's public hearing for the law. Several resident attendees spoke against the legislation because they felt it impeded on one's personal and private space. Dick Eagen, an arborist who lives on Mt. Lucas Road, said that residents should be granted autonomy when removing trees on their own private property. Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said the law was an effort to balance the rights of the Township and the homeowners, and that if a resident wanted to remove a tree that fell outside of the requirements of the new code, the Township would look at that case individually. "This is not a draconian ordinance," Mayor Marchand said. "This is to prevent the indiscriminate removal of trees." Deputy Mayor Bill Enslin added that the old law was not stringent enough to enforce rampant tree removal. "There were egregious violations of the old ordinance that were uncontrollable," he said.

Control Floodplains

Mr. Enslin added that trees are used to control floodplains and stream corridors. Grace Sinden, the Princeton Regional Health Commission's liaison to the Environmental Commission, praised the ordinance and emphasized the law's regard for the private homeowner. "[The Committee] bent over backwards to consider the homeowner's point of view," she said. Ms. Sinden added that trees reduce flooding, noise, provide visual buffering, and create more non-impervious surfaces. However, Robert Wells, an arborist who lives on State Road, said that while he supports the ordinance effectively closing the gap between what is regulated by the Princeton Regional Planning Board and the actual construction process where "builders take advantage of loopholes" to remove more trees than initially intended, he objects to the permit process because he says it posed safety hazards.

Misses the Point

"The ordinance misses the point of the most important aspect of municipal shade tree management, and that is the well-being of its citizens," he said.

Mr. Wells said that potentially dangerous trees could pose dangerous scenarios to those navigating the Township's roadways and that the Township does not not need a "new layer of taxation on an already overworked staff."

Committeewoman Casey Hegener responded that the Township has a right and obligation to protect trees and that the ordinance was a "completely responsible measure."

"We're trying to protect something that is pretty valuable," she said.

Under the new ordinance, a permit is required for cutting trees 16 inches in diameter or more. Previously, a permit was required for trees of eight inches in diameter or more. In addition, a permit is now required to cut a tree eight inches in diameter or more in a public right of way. The previous law dictated a permit to cut trees six inches or more in diameter.

Mr. O'Neil, who enforces the bill through the Township Engineering Department, said the purpose of the ordinance is to facilitate a permit process on proposed tree cutting outside the site review process.

Further, the new law will require the registration of commercial tree cutters as part of the educational outreach for the ordinance. Mr. O'Neil said lack of knowledge of Township tree laws posed problems in the past.

The bill passed 4-1 with Committeeman Leonard Godfrey casting the lone dissenting vote. "[The ordinance] is too difficult to apply and will create a legal mess," he said.

Lily Kraus, chairperson of the Princeton Township Shade Tree Commission, said that while the ordinance is not perfect she maintained that "it is a start."

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