Residents: Princeton tree ordinance either inadequate or not enforced

The roots of a maple tree that straddles two properties on Hawthorne Avenue.

On paper, the municipality of Princeton’s policy for preserving shade trees sounds good. But for at least one resident, the policy has been worthless in practice when it comes to a local developer’s activities.

Hawthorne Avenue resident Galina Chernaya has been trying to protect her mature shade trees from being destroyed ever since she found out a developer received approvals to tear down the house next to her property this winter.

In January, Chernaya met with Princeton mayor Liz Lempert to find out what could be done to protect the maple trees, which are located  on the border of 260 Hawthorne Avenue, a neighboring property that was bought by RB Homes.  Four trees straddle the property line and one tree is totally on her property, Chernaya said. The developer contends that all of the trees are on the property the developer owns. The plans for the property can be viewed online here.

A pink surveyor mark shows the property border between the two properties that the trees straddle.

Chernaya said she was assured that there was a protocol that must be followed before trees are removed on the other property or work is done near the roots of the trees on or near the property line. In a Jan.26 email, Lempert told Chernaya there is a municipal tree protection zone for tree roots, and that the tree root system would have to be preserved by the developer. “This would directly affect any grading changes (trenching or additional soil added) in the tree protection zone,” Lempert wrote. Chernaya was relieved. Later it was also her understanding that a fence would have to be placed about six feet from the trees before the excavation of the property began.

But then on June 3, to Chernaya’s shock, many of the roots of the trees were chopped off during the excavation of the neighboring property. Three trees were also removed from the developer’s property, even though the neighbors were not notified prior to the removal as the municipal ordinance calls for. A demolition permit checklist dated April 10 showed that an official had checked off “tree protection installed and inspected” prior to issuing a demolition permit. There was no fence at the time that the tree roots were cut, however. The fence was added later, after Chernaya complained.

Some Hawthorne Avenue residents who witnessed the process have pointed out that the municipality’s tree protection ordinance is either inadequate, or proper procedures were not followed by officials, or the ordinance was disregarded by the developer, in which case a fine should be levied.

Each time Chernaya has contacted an official about the issue, she receives a different response but no action.

In a June 3 email to Chernaya, Lempert stated that the tree protection ordinance”could not be applied” due to how close the trees on Chernaya’s property were to the foundation of the new home being built by RB homes. “The roots had grown into the old foundation and could not survive,” Lempert wrote. “Mr. Barsky was made aware that after the new foundation is poured, the zone must be properly established. He has also been instructed to have his tree contractor flush cut all exposed roots. When it is time for replanting, you will be contacted by Mr. Barsky and the arborist to get your input on what you would like to see planted in that space.”

An independent arborist examined the trees and noted that critical roots of five trees straddling the properties were damaged. “Care was not taken in the preservation of these trees during the excavation process. It appears an excavator was used to move the soil, resulting in damage to the trees roots,” reads the arborist’s report. “Proper root pruning techniques should have been implemented to minimize root trauma. The above mentioned trees require immediate care to help them recover from the traumatic stress this excavation has caused.”

The arborist estimated that the total cost to take care of the trees would be $5,500.

Chernaya contacted officials, but neither the developer nor the municipality offered to pay for work to be done to save the trees. So Chernaya hired Princeton lawyer Roger Martindell, who wrote a letter to municipal officials on June 21 asking for, among other things, a stop work order until Chernaya’s concerns about the excavation are addressed. He called on the municipality to require the developer to reimburse Chernaya for the tree remediation work. He also pointed out that three trees were removed on the developer’s property, but neighbors never received a notice prior to the removal, in violation of the municipality’s ordinance.

“If immediate action is not taken, the message to the community is that the tree protection ordinance is not enforceable,” Martindell wrote. 

He received no response to his initial letter. The excavation began again on June 25. Martindell reached out to officials again.

“As of this writing, I have not had any contact that would indicate that the municipality desires to assist Ms. Chernaya in slowing the continuing threat to the trees so that a long-term solution might be negotiated between the parties,” Martindell wrote. “That’s disappointing for a variety of reasons, including the interest in preserving trees, the interest in keeping the peace between neighbors, the interest in appropriate enforcement of the tree ordinance, and the interest in advancing a municipal decision-making process regarding development that is civil, rational, and transparent.”

Martindell then received a brief email on June 25 from Princeton Business Administrator Marc Dashield acknowledging the June 21 letter. “The municipality is aware of the concerns raised by Ms. Chernaya and has been working with the developer to address any concerns related to violations of municipal ordinances,” Dashield wrote.

A sign Galina Chernaya created and posted in front of her property.

Chernaya then attended the Princeton Council meeting on Monday night to try to get answers again.

“The staff is working on it. I have heard the concerns you raise. Our engineering department and arborist have been working on the issues and are meeting for continued discussions,” Lempert said. “The arborist is working on a program to  provide feeding for the trees to insure any violations will be taken care of. At this point they will continue to monitor the property.”

Asked for a time frame for an action plan, Chernaya was not given one. She was told public comment is not meant to be a back and forth between citizens and officials. This time around, officials didn’t acknowledge that the ordinance had been violated.

“We will be meeting with staff and they have reviewed the situation,” Dashield said. “We will have some better idea if there is any violation of the ordinance — I’m not sure that there a violation at this point.”

On Tuesday night, Chernaya and several other residents attended the municipal shade tree commission’s monthly meeting. Commission officials said they would need to visit the site.

Meanwhile, the tree roots remain untouched, and Chernaya worries as each day goes by that the trees will not be salvageable.

9 comments
  • Mr. Barsky has a “reputation of integrity” [sic: “reputation for” is what a native English speaker says] in Princeton? This line had me laughing out loud. “Do First, Shrug Shoulders (and send lawyer to put the fix in with zoning/engineering) Afterwards,” is the actual modus operandi. This was my experience, as neighbor to a property where he tore down an old house, along with its mature garden, hedges, and trees, to build one of his vinyl-and-sod masterpieces. Ms. Chernaya’s story sounds sadly familiar.

  • Check out the Institute for advanced study they are about to cut down a ton of old trees!!!

    Even worse I saw the town cut down a perfectly healthy pine tree at the towns own expense because a neighbor called and complained about the tree. It’s one thing for a neighbor to pay to cut a healthy tree down. It’s another to have the town pay. A total of 14 old trees were cut down at a new house going up on our street. It’s just wrong and the boroughs response is laughable!!! Whoever is responsible for approving tree cutting should not be employed by the town.

  • There are certainly trees with 2-3 feet of diameter down low near the ground. Just such a healthy tree was cut this week on the NW side Hamilton (between Harrison and Snowden) if you would like to view it. It was close to a house (where it had stood since the house was built), but it was definitely not diseased. The tree limbs are still stacked on the curb and you can see the stump. And the stump, if not removed, will provide a problem area for decades to come in that yard. Tree companies and gutter companies often recommend such removals to lower maintenance costs–but that does not take into consideration the effects longterm of lack of shade. I have found that tree maintenance costs can be controlled be regular monitoring and trimming of existing trees, with complete removal as a last resort.

  • Are there any old-growth trees in Princeton? Almost all of the old trees in Princeton are less than 100 years old. That’s old, but not old-growth. Almost all the original trees are gone. Was the Mercer Oak the oldest one in Princeton before it fell?

  • The headline of this article is true. Hardly a day goes by but that an old-growth tree, not diseased and not threatening any structure, is cut down in my neighborhood, and very little if any replacement planting. The ordinance is a sham unless it gets enforced. Either the tree companies are not getting permits, or they are being given permits no matter what. Which has been the situation for the 18 years I’ve lived in Princeton. I remain thoroughly disillusioned about it. I have tried multiple times to protest and encountered a total stonewall. In one case, the tree inspector told me, “They don’t have a permit, but they will by the end of the day.” He claimed the tree was diseased but I am sure he had never seen the tree (it bordered my backyard and was certainly healthy). I accused him of being on the take (this was the previous inspector); his office girl became hysterical at the accusation and threatened me with a lawsuit, and I threatered her back. The tree was cut. As per usual. Another time, the owner had claimed the trees were being used by squirrels to get onto his roof–and since when is THAT a reason for cutting a tree? There would not be a tree left anywhere in town. It’s a sham ordinance and a real shame.

  • Dear Princeton Planet,

    In a time when the credibility of news media outlets is being continually questioned, I am surprised that you would publish such an accusatory article without first having fact-checked. The issue of tree removal in Princeton is a hot-issue, along with that of tear downs, and without your input there is already substantial controversy and side-taking surrounding this topic.
    I am therefor surprised that you never reached out to the developer RB Homes as a standard journalistic procedure to interview both sides of your story, nor took the necessary steps of figuring out who the trees in question belong to.
    Although that part may not have been necessary in your eyes, you will easily have found that the trees in fact belong to the developer and are on his property. The trees belong to RB Homes, and they have received the necessary approval to remove them. Your article never made this clear, and stated that the tress were on the neighboring property of Galina Chernaya. You made the false claim that no remediation was made to the damaged tree roots, even if only in “effort to preserve the friendly relations between neighbors”, as Ms. Chernaya’s lawyer stated. Mr. Barsky has omitted to undertake a special root preservation treatment to the trees along the property line specifically to appease Ms. Chernaya, along with removing a tree from her property on her request. Along with tree remediation, Mr. Barsky has also been generous enough to allow Ms. Chernaya to keep her original walkway even though it imposes on his property line.
    Mr. Barsky has a reputation of integrity in Princeton, and for working with homeowners, neighbors, and the municipality alike to deliver an outcome that is suitable for all sides. There are many people who can vouch for his character, whether they “approve” of his line of work or not.
    Was the intent of your article to take a biased approach, defame the character of Mr. Barsky and RB Homes and make the insinuation that proper protocol was not followed on his end? Certainly it was not to provide accurate news to the residents of Princeton, and that is a great shame.

  • And our so-called government, amidst hand-waving, refuses to enforce justice for its constituent while bowing to the law-breaking developer.

  • it’s easy – developers in Princeton do what they want and then pay the fine or replace mature trees with junk bushes – this is nothing new and no one has ever been willing to address it

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