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Tree-chopping laws sprout up across North Jersey

By Deena Yellin
Staff Writer for The Record

A growing number of North Jersey towns are trimming homeowners' rights to chop down trees on their property.

Tree ordinances are cropping up like weeds across the nation. Many of the newly established ordinances limit the number, age and variety of trees that can be removed annually. Often, a permit is required for tree removal, and breaking the law is considered serious.

Homeowners caught violating tree ordinances could be fined anywhere from $100 to $5,000 and receive up to 90 days in jail in some municipalities.

Most towns prohibit homeowners from removing trees between the curb and the sidewalk in front of their homes. And felling trees in a park, even if it abuts your property, is against the law.

A former Alpine man was convicted of chopping down 600 trees on public parkland to make way for tennis courts in his back yard. Andrew Krieger, a multimillionaire currency trader, pleaded guilty in 2005 and agreed to serve two years' probation and complete 200 hours of community service. The plea deal coincided with a settlement in civil court in which Krieger agreed to pay $2.75 million to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission and to Bergen County.

That's the most extreme case. But other towns have taken action against homeowners.

"We've had people cut down around 40 trees illegally so they could put an addition on their house and a pool in their back yard," said Mahwah Construction Official Gary Montroy. "Then they threw the wood chips and tree remains into the river and blocked that up."

Montroy said the borough's fines were minimal but the state Department of Environmental Protection levied tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

Many officials say they were motivated to pass tree terminator laws because trees were being cut down at an alarming rate. In some cases, entire lots were clear-cut to make way for construction of large new homes, swimming pools or tree-free lawns.

In Bergen County, 26 towns have laws on the books regulating tree removal on private property, and several more, including Montvale, Wyckoff and Fair Lawn, are considering enacting or revising such laws.

But 41 towns, including Norwood, Elmwood Park and Bergenfield, still don't regulate tree removal. North Bergen and Secaucus in Hudson County also have no rules for cutting down trees.

Eight Passaic County towns have ordinances requiring homeowners to obtain permits before removing trees from their property. West Milford is updating its ordinance to dictate what trees require a permit for removal.

Towns have also been forced to act after disputes erupted between neighbors over chopping down trees between two properties.

Valeria Hartman of Hillsdale was outraged when a neighbor chopped down 25 trees over a two-year period in order to construct a swimming pool. "I went to the town and found out he didn't break any laws because of flaws in the town ordinance," Hartman said.

The borough changed its law after she complained it was too lenient. Now, only five trees can be removed in a 12-month period.

Hartman and her husband purchased $3,000 worth of trees to replace the ones the neighbor chopped down on their boundary line. "It's frustrating," she said. "But life goes on. I'm not happy with the number of trees he took down, but as it turns out he didn't do anything wrong."

The debate is a classic struggle between the rights of the property owner versus the common good.

Jeff Weinberger of New City, N.Y.-based Caliber Builders, who has been vying to build a project in Hillsdale for several years, believes there needs to be a better balance between a developer's right to build a project and the public's right for aesthetics.

He said one town required him to replace three trees for every one removed. "So there was one project where we had to plant 1,800 trees and there was nowhere to put all of them.

"It's a noble thought, but on a practical level, difficult. This is private property and nobody has the constitutional right to enjoy trees that are on my property," he said. "Why should a municipality be able to tell me what my back yard should look like? Don't private property rights mean anything anymore?"

Renee Lerner, chairwoman of the Englewood Cliffs Environmental Commission, said she recently caught a homeowner knocking down a 100-year-old maple tree illegally. She slapped him with a $2,000 fine, which will go toward the Environmental Commission's trust fund used for planting trees on public property.

"It's a serious violation to take down a 100-year-old tree," said Lerner. "You can't ever replace that. We can't let that go. In order to make the ordinance meaningful, you have to do something to punish people who violate it."

But such regulations and punishments are not strict enough for some tree advocates.

Lori Charkey, co-director of Bergen SWAN, a watershed-protection group for the upper Hackensack River, said tree ordinances are essential because "when you clear-cut an area you are destabilizing the soil and introducing more erosion into the system, which causes more flooding. Tree roots help keep the hillside in place and they suck up the water."

In Norwood, a tree removal ordinance for private property has been debated for several years, but was finally voted down because the council feared it was too dictatorial.

But neighbors complain to borough officials when they see destruction of trees by developers and there's little they can do about it because there's no law protecting trees, said Christine Hagemen, head of Norwood's Environmental Commission.

Cresskill officials, who are attempting to establish a tree ordinance regulating private property, are also running into conflict, said Mayor Benedict Romeo. "You've got some people who want to cut down every tree in their yard, but how do you stop that in private property? We don't want to restrict people's rights. But we also want to preserve the trees."


* * *

Tree ordinances in Bergen, Passaic and Morris counties

The following towns regulate tree removal on private property or are considering enacting an ordinance. Municipalities not listed do not have ordinances. Most towns have ordinances prohibiting homeowners from removing the trees between the curb and the sidewalk in front of their homes.

* * *

Bergen County

Allendale: Requires a permit for healthy trees to be removed if they are more than 6 inches in diameter.

Alpine: Any tree removal requires a permit. Any person violating the tree removal laws are fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or may be required to serve up to 90 days of jail time or community service.

Cliffside Park: Requires a permit for tree removal. For every two trees removed, two trees of at least 4 inches in width must be replanted.

Closter: Requires a permit for tree removal. Homeowners may be required to contribute money to the town's tree fund in exchange for removal of trees. Removing three to five trees can cost the homeowner $100 for the permit.

Emerson: Requires homeowners to replace a tree or contribute money to the Shade Tree Commission.

Englewood: Limits homeowners to removing three trees per year and replacing them with trees of a similar caliber. A certified tree expert must first determine whether there's a justified reason for taking down the tree.

Englewood Cliffs: Requires a permit to remove any healthy tree over 6 inches wide. A certified tree expert must inspect first. Trees must be replaced with others of the same size and variety. Violators can be fined up to $5,000. Builders must protect trees during construction by installing fencing around the trees until the work is completed.

Fair Lawn: Ordinance is being revised. Until recently, homeowners have been permitted to remove five trees annually. The new law will reduce it to three per year. Property owners must get a permit. Developers must submit photos of the entire area, including the trees, to make sure the area is not clear-cut.

Fairview: Requires a permit for removal of more than three trees from private property. The penalty is $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

Fort Lee: Requires a permit for removal of a healthy tree. Replacement is required of the same species and width. If that is not possible, homeowners must contribute to the Shade Tree Commission fund. Violators can be fined up to $1,250 and can receive a jail term of up to 30 days.

Franklin Lakes: Requires a permit and inspection for tree removal. If the tree is healthy, the inspector may refuse the homeowner's request. Violators will be fined, depending on the number of trees removed.

Harrington Park: Ordinance applies to new construction so that no properties will be clear-cut to make way for large new homes.

Hillsdale: Allows homeowners to remove five trees per year. Site inspection is done before trees are permitted to be taken down. Stiff penalties are given to violators.

Mahwah: Limits homeowners to removal of five trees per year for each acre of property. Violators are fined $1,000 for each tree removed illegally.

Montvale: Considering an ordinance.

New Milford: Requires a permit and limits how many trees can be removed per calendar year.

Oakland: Restricts removal to a certain number of trees and requires a permit.

Paramus: Restricts tree removal on private, undeveloped property.

Ramsey: Requires a $25 application fee and permit for removal of more than six trees that are over 4 inches in diameter in a calendar year. At times, the Shade Tree Commission requires the homeowner to replace the trees that have been removed.

Ridgefield: Requires a permit for tree removal. Homeowners must also replace whatever variety and size of tree they remove or contribute money to the town's tree fund.

River Vale: Requires a permit for removal of eight trees in a two year period in a lot containing 16 trees or fewer. Trees need to be replaced, depending on the size of trees removed.

Rockleigh: Requires homeowners to get a permit to remove a tree over 18 inches in diameter.

Saddle River: Limits homeowners to removing five trees per year without penalty, depending on size.

Tenafly: Requires homeowner to obtain a permit for removal of any tree over 4 inches in diameter. Permit fees are charged for removal, from $100 for one tree to $1,000 for 51.

Upper Saddle River: Requires a permit for removing trees on any part of the property.

Washington Township: Prohibits homeowners from removing more than three trees per year. A land survey and arborist's proposal must be submitted with a request to remove any trees. The administrator reviews the request and issues a decision. Violators can be fined up to $3,000 for each offense. The destruction of each tree constitutes a separate offense.

Woodcliff Lake: Limits homeowners to removal of four trees per year without a permit.

Westwood: Limits homeowners to removal of five trees per year. Violators are fined up to $1,000.

Wyckoff: Considering an ordinance.

* * *

Passaic County

Bloomingdale: Requires a permit to remove anything over 4 inches in diameter. Homeowners are allowed to remove one tree per year without a permit.

Clifton: Requires homeowners to obtain a permit for cutting down any tree over 6 inches wide.

Hawthorne: Ordinance for tree removal on private property applies to new developments only.

North Haledon: Requires homeowners with an acre or more of land to obtain a permit for the removal of five trees or more annually. A copy of the property survey must be brought to the construction department to show which trees are being taken down. The fee for a permit is $20. Residents with properties less than an acre can cut down trees without a permit.

Ringwood: Requires an application for every tree removal. An inspector is sent to evaluate the tree to be removed. A permit to remove the first two trees is free and then there's a sliding scale of fees for removal. For certain trees, there needs to be a good reason for taking them down. Violators get fines of up to $1,250. They also have to replant five trees for every tree removed.

Wanaque: Homeowners must apply for a permit and a building inspector must inspect the tree first.

Wayne: Homeowners can remove up to four trees annually without a permit if they are under a certain size.

West Milford: Ordinance is being reworked to dictate what trees require a permit for removal.

Totowa: An inspector must determine whether the tree should be removed before issuing a permit. If the tree is healthy and not disturbing anything, the inspector does not usually grant permission to take it down.

* * *

Morris County

Butler: Recently passed an ordinance, which, among other things, regulates tree removal for a builder of a new development. But there's no tree removal ordinance that applies to a homeowner.

Kinnelon: The Environmental Commission recently drafted a proposed revised ordinance that would offer greater protection to trees. The existing ordinance allows the homeowner to remove up to 25 trees per year without a permit. It is lenient because at the time that it was written, leaders did not want to curb development.

Lincoln Park: Requires a permit for any tree removal on private property.

Riverdale: Requires a permit to remove a tree that is more than 4 inches in diameter. The decision is rendered by the Planning Board. An inspector comes to inspect the removal process.

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