Controversial tree ordinance introduced by Medford council

The law would restrict excessive sapling removals by residents.

Editor’s Note: In Sept. 23 – 29 issue of The Medford Sun on page 1, the story titled “Council discusses construction, election updates” appeared due to a printing error instead of the following.

A regulation to curb excessive tree cutting by residents was met with controversy in Medford Township as landscapers suggested it would be an overreach.

Township council introduced the ordinance on first reading at its Sept. 15 meeting to address residents who overtrim trees on their lots for aesthetic reasons, causing potential health threats to the Pinelands National Reserve and the Rancocas Creek Watershed.

Council discussed the ordinance’s specifics over the past six months before introducing it. An email mentioned by Mayor Charles Watson described a property owner who cleared trees on a residential lot. Township Manager Kathy Burger said the property is in the wetlands buffer and a wooded development. Township officials withheld from the public identifying information in the  email, deeming it unrelated to the issue at hand.

Cornerstone Tree Service owners and brothers David and Brian Carns raised concerns about the ordinance during the meeting’s public comment after an unnamed publication printed information about the legislation that had to be corrected by council.

Solicitor Tim Prime clarified that trees exceeding 15 feet in height and 6 inches in caliper above another 6 feet off of the ground are the ordinance’s specific target. The ordinance would also restrict homeowners from excessive chopping of trees not in immediate or imminent danger to the residents or property.

“In the immediate, it’s that it needs to come down right now, because it is a threat to your home and it has already damaged something,” councilman Frank Czekay said. “Imminent meaning that it may in the future but not at the present moment.”

Exemptions in the ordinance cover several scenarios David Carns offered to council, one being if a contractor or tree expert spots a tree that needs to be torn down while others are in the process. Watson replied the imminent danger clause covers that and a permit will not be needed.

“The idea is, before you take down more than three trees, unless there are exemptions for it, you need a permit for it,” Prime advised.

Residents were described to be less likely to order their lots to be cleared, David Carns explained. Their motives behind the clearances were questioned by Carns, before he explained the benefits trees have to someone’s property.

Carns questioned the denial process of the ordinance permit, with Prime and council explaining that the zoning officer can get opinions from township engineers, arborists, tree experts and others on whether a tree can be safely removed. Acts of God are covered under the ordinance and do not require permits.

If tree work is continuing on a property and the zoning officer sees what he or she believes to be an ordinance violation, a stop-work order cannot be issued unless employees in the construction office can’t locate permits. Brian Carns alleged that current Zoning Officer Beth Portocalis issued a temporary stoppage during service he previously did while she verified permits.

A heated discussion among Carns, Watson and Prime concerned the ordinance and its practicality. Carns noted that two tree service companies are in Medford, his and J.M. Tree and Landscape Service, and outside companies do work on lots in town.

Homeowners are expected to know applicable laws when having work done on their property. Penalties are assessed to the resident per tree in violation of the ordinance, the solicitor said.

Watson requested that Carns relinquish his time after 15 minutes because his comment exceeded the allotted five-minute limit.

In a later interview with The Sun, David Carns hoped the ordinance to be tabled for further review of its possible ramifications against pool, solar and landscaping companies. He explained the three will run into issues if trees could not be removed for the services to be installed.

Local nursery owner Ivan Olinsky reminded council a tree on a sidewalk was torn down some time ago and  had to be replanted, creating safety issues to the concrete as it grew. He cautioned officials to rethink the replanting portion of the ordinance so an issue would not occur again elsewhere on the lot.

Council unanimously voted to introduce the ordinance on first reading. The public hearing will be Oct. 6 at 7 p.m., during the council meeting at 91 Union St. To view the ordinance, visit MedfordTownship.com.