Law sets new process for removal of trees


Staff Writer

HOWELL — The Township Council has adopted a woodlands management ordinance which Mayor Timothy J. Konopka called “a great piece of legislation that will protect the town.”

The new law has been dubbed Howell’s “tree ordinance.” It sets in place a permit and fee process for the removal of trees on private property. Its passage was preceded by much debate.

The council adopted the ordinance on Dec. 21 with the acknowledgment that Township Attorney Thomas Gannon would draft several revisions and clarifications in the language of the law. The amendments are expected to be adopted at some future date.

Following some discussion, the changes included establishing a cap amount for the tree fund donation amounts. Also, the owners of 3-acre lots will be asked to keep trees on up to 25 percent of their property.

The cost of a permit for individuals who want to cut down trees starts at $15.

The ordinance has been debated and revised since the spring, when Howell’s certified tree expert Zig Panek developed a first draft which was met with some criticism. The ordinance’s preamble states it is being developed to deal with increasing incidents of the “indiscriminate cutting and removal of trees.”

It goes on to note, “a continuation of this practice will result in the degradation of the environment of the township as well as creating problems of increased water runoff, soil instability and erosion on particular lots upon which unplanned tree removal takes place and upon the lands which adjoin them.”

The intent of the law is to “protect the property, health and general welfare of the citizens of Howell by requiring the careful planning of any tree removal to take place in a managed manner.”

Tom Critelli, representing the New Jersey Shore Builders Association, had several criticisms for the ordinance.

According to Critelli, the ordinance’s preamble states environmental intents that the ordinance does not address. Instead, he said, the law provides for developers to replant trees on municipal property and make donations to a township tree fund.

“How does this help Howell’s environment?” Critelli asked.

He said he believes “the township is overstepping its authority with the proposed ordinance’s excessive fees that make no sense.”

Panek has acknowledged that the law was developed with a major focus of policing developers.

“Howell has a long history of major developers cutting [down] hundreds of thousands of trees and returning practically nothing. This has got to stop and that’s what this ordinance does,” he said.

Panek said the parameters of the ordinance are “reasonable,” with developers being made to replace 80 percent of the trees they remove from a property.

Councilman Joseph DiBella, who is Howell’s mayor-elect, defended the tree replacement criteria.

“A tree no matter where it’s planted is a plus,” he said.

Originally, residential lots of 1 acre or less were exempted from the provisions of the law. A major change in the adopted ordinance extends the exemption to lots of 3 acres and less.

The residential exemption is subject to any easements or buffer restrictions affecting the lot, as well as the presence of “legacy trees,” according to Panek, which would require a permit to remove.

Also exempted are commercial nurseries, Christmas tree plantings and farms, fruit orchards and fruit farms.

The ordinance also provides exemptions for the removal of trees which are dead, dying or diseased, or trees which have suffered severe damage, or any tree whose angle or growth makes it a hazard to structures or human life.

According to Panek, a permit will not be needed to remove a diseased or dead tree.

At DiBella’s suggestion, a 10-tree minimum will be set for a lot of any size. This means 10 trees may be cut down and removed from any property before the permit process applies. DiBella said he was counting on personal integrity to be the enforcer of this part of the process.

Enforcement of the ordinance falls to the Land Use Department.

Land Use Officer Vito Marinaccio had asked for the ordinance to allow for a 20-day turnaround time, which meant Howell officials would have 20 days to complete their part of the permit approval process.

DiBella referred to complaints made over the years by residents about the permit process in any department as being too lengthy. He said he wanted a seven-day time limit and called the proposed 20 days “awful.”

“It should be seven days or you get your permit money back,” he said. “If you’re the guy waiting 20 days, it stinks.”

Councilman Peter Tobasco then observed that the review process was subject to the available manpower that is able to respond to the requests as they are received.

“Do you tell people we’re going to raise taxes a little to enforce” a seven-day time limit? Tobasco asked DiBella.

That prompted Township Manager Bruce Davis to observe that in the last year the governing body adopted 68 ordinances that “generally require enforcing.” He went on to note that in the last five years Howell has not added to the staff of any department, with the exception of the police.

“We have to look at the reality of this for what it is. We have to look at adding personnel to get the job done,” Davis said.

Regarding the time that such processes take, Davis asked, “Do you think these things don’t get done because we’re sitting on our hands? But it gets to the point of what you can manage and what you can’t manage. We have to seriously look at adding personnel.”

DiBella said he “meant no disrespect,” but observed that he did not want to hear anyone tell the council members, “If you pass this [ordinance] I need to hire people to get it done.”

“That makes me very, very nervous,” said the mayor-elect.

DiBella said that as a businessman he knew what clients would and would not stand for.

To this Tobasco observed, “You can raise rates in the business world, but you’re talking about raising rates on taxpayers.”

Violators of the tree removal ordinance could face fines of not more than $1,000 per violation and/or imprisonment in the county jail for no more than 90 days.