Municipalities Differ with Rules About Tree Removal

By Michael Hill

In Rutherford, they cherish the trees so much the town calls itself “The Borough of Trees”. But why is there no ordinance governing or preventing what disappeared from Raymond Schembri’s view?

“We knew something was going on with the house. They took the house down, so I said OK they’re going to rebuild and just one morning we heard the chainsaws going and we started looking out the window and we’re hearing crashing and the trees came down,” he said. “I was like, no. The two that were closest to my property here, I was like as long as they don’t cut those down. I’m being greedy, I’m sorry, and they cut all five down.”

A Google photo shows the huge, mature oak trees on private property.

It’s now a construction site for a new house. Schembri describes what he’s lost.

“It’s really changed not only the view but the backyard is hot. A lot of the neighbors here are worried about water in our basements. A lot of us do get water in our basements. I don’t know but five oak trees probably suck up a lot of water. And I feel like, you know, I moved here from West Point. And I said honey, I need a place with trees and to me this was about the only neighborhood around here with trees and now I feel slowly but surely it’s going to be the same as any other neighborhood. I imagine property values are related to trees,” he said.

Rutherford’s tree ordinance addresses trees on public property and right of way, but not ones on private property.

Does Schembri think there should be?

“Yes. I understand it’s private property but I think there must be a way of doing something,” he said.

Rutherford formed a Shade Tree Commission in March but getting it to deal with trees on private property seems low on the totem pole at this point.

Steve Addeo chairs the voluntary Shade Tree Commission, formed to handle the growing requests to examine and inspect trees that make for many of the town’s picturesque canopies and to advise the local department of public works.

What kind of authority does the commission have to make recommendations about trees on private property?

“As a newly formed commission, we’re looking at public trees right now. There is no ordinance in place for private property trees. I did create a rough draft to present to the commission down the road, in the future. Right now, we’re focusing on getting the public trees situation handled, get a routine. And eventually as we go on we’ll take a look at the private property trees,” Addeo said.

How soon does he think he’ll get to the private property?

“I’m hoping to bring it up within the next few meetings. We have a meeting every third Wednesday of every month,” he said.

Hundreds of New Jersey towns have laws governing the removal of trees on private property that require homeowners to pay a fee and get a permit, usually for trees of a certain size. Wayne does. So does Clifton. North Haledon requires it if the trees are on private property bigger than an acre.

Maggie Karpati was shopping for trees at a nursery after removing trees in her North Haledon yard unaware as to whether she needed a permit. Does she think towns should require them for private property?

“I’ll have to say yes and no I think. As a homeowner I should be able to make an intelligent decision on what is the best for my particular environment, the effect on the particular area. So, I would like government not to get involved. However, I guess many of us are not so wise. And so we need some guidance from so-called experts,” she said.

Many towns suggest homeowners follow the same rule that applies to digging a hole — ask before you do.