If a developer gets his way, more than 150 trees on undeveloped woodland could come down some time this summer, as a forerunner to potential development on the site.
For their part, borough officials have indicated they would like to prevent such an outcome. The property in question is Buck Woods, a 4.1-acre property owned by JSM at Highland Park LLC, with an assessed worth of $279,000. It lies between South Fifth and South Seventh avenues, at the southern end of South Sixth Avenue, about a half-block from Bartle Elementary School.
The application, which Borough Attorney Ed Schmierer described as a preliminary action for assessing contamination on the site, has been pending before the borough since Dec. 15, 2014.
“They would like to take down (159) trees, and we would like to prevent that,” said Mr. Schmierer. “We’ll continue to work on it, to see what we can come up with.”
On a site such as Buck Woods, where a developer plans to remove a number of trees, the borough’s tree ordinance requires the developer submit a plan beforehand. The plan has to indicate deciduous trees slated for removal if they are at least 16 inches in diameter, and coniferous trees at least 12 inches thick, at a point 4½ feet from the ground.
The tree removal plan also requires other information, such as: a map of the property that identifies each tree marked for removal by its size and species; details on the tree disposal process once the trees have been felled, in order to avoid spreading arboreal diseases or pests; a detailed explanation about why the trees have to be removed; and a tree-replacement plans for replacing the trees according to the requirements of the ordinance.
Corey Kestner, an associate at Mr. Schmierer’s legal firm who has been working with Mr. Schmierer on the Buck Woods matter, described movement on the application as professional but slow-moving.
In February this year, the borough filed suit before state Superior Court Judge Frank Ciuffani, asking for an order that would bar JSM at Highland Park from removing the trees. JSM filed a countersuit, arguing that it should be issued the tree-removal permit, because the borough had taken more than 20 days to respond to the application.
Judge Ciuffani at the time denied both claims: JSM’s, because the developer had not provided all the information required for the permit; and the borough’s, because without a permit JSM legally could not remove the targeted trees.
The application still lacked required information by the time of a followup hearing in April. At that time, Judge Ciuffani left a window open that could spare the trees for at least a while longer should JSM meet the legal requirements for a permit.
“They have to give us a day’s notice before they do anything, so that we can then refile our application before the court to prevent them from cutting down any trees,” said Mr. Kestner.
The application remained incomplete as of June 9, the most recent hearing before Judge Ciuffani. The judge, developer and borough are scheduled to discuss the situation further on July 27.
Developer Jack Morris of JSM could not be reached for comment.
Beyond the requirements of the application, the ordinance allows the borough’s Zoning Department to consider other factors before issuing tree-removal permits, such as the impact on neighboring properties and the effect the trees’ removal would have on soil erosion.
A March 26th letter from the Shade Tree Advisory Committee did ask that developer JSM project the impact that removing the trees would have on the herd of deer that live near Buck Woods. The letter also asked for assurances that no “extraordinary trees,” defined in the ordinance as trees at least 36 inches in diameter, would be affected.
Under current land-use law, a developer could build single-family homes on the property, as long as each property is a minimum 5,000 square feet, or a little more than a tenth-acre. This would match the development nearby on South Fifth and South Seventh avenues.
Buck Woods is contaminated extensively from on-site dumping under a previous owner, including concrete and asphalt debris, as well as railroad ties and construction debris, according to a draft report by engineering firm Clarke Caton Hintz.
Before the site could be developed, more than 60,000 cubic yards – about 90,000 tons — of soil would need to be removed, disposed of off-site, and replaced at significant expense to the borough.
Highland Park officials have been reluctant to discuss ongoing negotiations about saving the Buck Woods property from development. Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler declined to comment about the draft report, at the council’s most recent meeting; and Scott Luthman, director of code enforcement, declined to release the application itself, citing the ongoing litigation.
About four months ago, the Borough Council passed an ordinance that would allow Highland Park to borrow up to nearly $1.77 million and spend about $1.86 million to buy Buck Woods. Mr. Schmierer expressed his opinion that the situation may play out over the summer.