A contingent of Fair Haven residents riled over the proposed removal of 50-foot sweet gum trees along Third Street and Cedar Avenue were quelled by the eventual edict at Monday’s Borough Council meeting that, for now, officials will leave the trees be.
Mayor Ben Lucarelli, after more than an hour of heated arguments on the subject, said that as long as council agreed, the governing body would “take a breath, step back and go back to the drawing table with alternate plans.”
That decision, which was sanctioned by council with a unanimous vote, as the mayor does not vote, was met with a collective sigh of relief from the tree preservationists, but not before they made their angst known in the public portion of the meeting.
“I’ve cried my heart out. Those trees are my pleasure. I was tempted to chain myself to them, but I would have gotten arrested,” said Third Street resident Elizabeth O’Neill. “This is such a disposable society. The trees have been there forever. Suddenly, the sticky balls are a hazard. The environmental benefit is so extreme.”
O’Neill went on the say that the temperature without the shade from the trees will rise by 10 degrees and electric bills will soar in the summer. She added that the seed pods (known as sticky balls) feel birds and the trees produce beautiful foliage when seasons change.
The proposal to remove the the trees by the time school is back in session was in line with a borough renovation project’s conceptual plan to for Community Center Fields, which is bordered by Third Street on one side, Cedar Avenue on the other and abuts the borough police station and Fair Haven Community Center (formerly The Youth Center).
Such a project, officials said, has been long overdue and perceived as a want by the community. In fact, Councilman Robert Marchese said, “I live on Third Street. We have never spent a penny on that park.” It’s about time, he said. Marchese, a resident mentioned in the comment period, was up in arms over the removal of two trees at one time.
Marchese has been involved with the governing body’s tree ordinance, which is very strict about tree removal, requiring trees be examined by the borough arborist first to determine viability and asking for replacement of any eliminated trees.
The park improvement plan would be funded via what is called a pay-as-you-go capital improvement in the amount of $35,000 to $185,000 for such projects. Several deemed most desired are on the list.
The park plan would work hand-in-hand with funding from a Safe Routes to School grant to make Third Street a safer corridor between Knollwood and Viola L. Sickles School for kids’ traversing. It involves installing sidewalks where there currently are none on both sides of Third.
The trees ended up being recommended for removal for several reasons, such as grading for the revamped park, nuisance sticky balls that the tree produces that people trip over, making way for barrier-free park access and sidewalks, and exposed root systems.
That didn’t jibe with objectors who cited that the ecological benefits, aesthetics, shade and privacy boons, among other reasons, to save the roughly 50-year-old old, mammoth trees, far outweigh what they see as the more “convenient” disposal idea. What they deemed ineffective communication with officials on the subject was also a contentious issue.
Officials said that social media posts and miscommunication distorted the facts. Councilman Rowland Wilhelm cautioned that people should understand how government works better by checking notifications, attending meetings and staying involved to stay current on such issues.
Borough Administrator Theresa Casagrande went over the process, citing the public airing of the plan at two meetings, insertion of it in tax bills, committee and professional review and what she said were the facts behind the decision.
“It’s not a matter of the tree balls or the type of tree,” she said. “Is that problematic? Yes it is. The bigger problem is that the root system is exposed close to Third Street” and interferes with the Safe Route to School initiative.
Cinder walking trails are also a part of the park plan, which involve regrading of land, and with sidewalks also slated to be installed on Cedar Avenue, Mayor Lucarelli said access to the park would be too limited and must accommodate updated American Disabilities Act standards.
As far as the claim that the extensive root systems of the sweet gums are exposed and pose a safety problem, Shade Tree Commission member Stephen Trudel said, “The root system of the trees supports the road” which is dipping from extensive use. Also, he said, “You can’t replace a 50-foot tree (with one that’s 4 inches in diameter, which is what the replacement trees would be). You’re not gonna get the shade or visibility (from the hill). It is just so valuable to have a canopy of trees like this. I think this just needs more thought. ”
Longtime Fair Havenite Kim Lewis balked at the notion that the project and tree removal would make the Third Street trek to school safer. “You’re talking about safety?” she said. “It’s already out of control. The street is falling apart. It’s caving in.”
Lewis went on to cite that she has watched Third Street become a traffic nightmare. It is now closed to vehicular traffic during school hours and before and after school the street has been known to be inundated with vehicular traffic for school pick-ups and drop-offs.
“We’re making a change. You don’t like it,” the mayor said in response to a criticism of grimaces coming from the governing body while listening to comments. “What we thought you’d be excited about is having a brand new park. We do want barrier-free access. There’s no way we’re gonna get from here to there and maintain the trees.”
It’s not just the tree removal itself that upset residents. The project, many said, is one they claimed they became aware of far too late in the game via neighborhood chatter. However, officials reiterated that the plans had been aired at two public meetings and conceptual plans had been approved after a chain of review and recommendations from various advisory committees and the borough engineer.
Representatives of the Shade Tree Commission, also an advisory committee, said they were blindsided by the plans until very recently when the chainsaw was already revved up for what Borough Administrator Theresa Casagrande said was an anticipated removal before school starts.
No matter, said longtime Fair Havenite, borough employee and Shade Tree Commission member Dave Becker, who talked about cleaning up the sticky balls from the trees for many years in line with his borough job and it not being such a big deal.
He urged the mayor and council to step back and reconsider before people dislike them for making what they think is a rash decision.
“Please take a step back and think before you cut those trees down,” Becker. “You’re gonna have lollipop trees in place of beautiful trees for the sake of a walking path. Come on. I want everyone to like you.”
Becker’s comments were met with some laughter and agreement as another resident piped up with, “People love those trees. Cutting them down is like killing someone.”
“Please leave us with something to remind us of what Fair Haven used to be,” Lewis had said.
The mayor announced his intention. The vote was cast to take it back a few steps and the mayor encouraged public participation in the coming weeks.
Yes, he said, come up with alternate plans. “If your plan meets the same goals, we’ll go with it.”