Planet Princeton

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.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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