Riche: Conceptual Shade Tree Policy Represents 'Government Run Amok'

Proposal would force homeowners to be responsible for maintenance of shade trees

Village Parks and Recreation Director Tim Cronin likely didn't expect the reaction he got from the council when he proposed implementing a new shade tree policy that would force homeowners to take ownership of all trees on the street scape.

According to Cronin, the three village workers tasked to do tree maintenance are set to retire at the end of the 2012. Given fiscal constraints in the village, Cronin pitched a "unique" opportunity to force property owners to be responsible for the upkeep of trees in the right-of-way and sidewalk.

Under the conceptual plan, the village would require homeowners to trudge through a permit process at the Engineering office to do any pruning, trimming, and replacing of dead trees on the street scape. Outside of an arborist issuing the thumbs up or thumbs down on any homeowner plans, as well as the permit handling and a property maintenance worker handing out tickets to force compliance, village involvement would essentially be nil.

"The village could see significant savings," Cronin said.

But savings is not what Deputy Mayor Tom Riche saw in this concept.

"I think this is government rum amok," Riche shot back in apparent disgust to Cronin, remarking–loudly–that he believes the village does need a long-term plan to deal with the "terrible" state of its trees. This, he said, is not it.

"We can't even take care of the permit process that we've got in town now let alone start a whole new layer of bureaucracy . . . I don't want to get a permit, I don't want to require every homeowner to get a permit to go out there and snip a little branch off the tree that grew off the tree."

Village Manager Ken Gabbert defended the concept plan.

"We're talking about trees that make the quality of life, the visual impact of Ridgewood," said Gabbert. "If someone did want to, even though its on their property to cut it down, we're saying: 'No, that's a protected tree.' If they want to cut down a dead tree and plant a new tree, that's fine. That's still part of the approval process." 

According to Gabbert, the intent is not to add more government regulation. Rather, it's "government protecting the quality of the whole street and why those trees have to be there."

Mayor has problems with responsibility aspect

Mayor Keith Killion, a self-proclaimed 'tree hugger,' found troubling aspects to the plan, which would essentially model itself after the village's sidewalk ordinance.

"You forcing me to replace a tree that I'm going to have to maintain," Killion said, "it goes against my grain."

Liability, safety issues

Councilman Stephen Wellinghorst, an attorney by trade, said he favors plans that remove liability from the village–which he said was a result of decades of lawyering. The trend, he stated, is to shift the liability onto the homeowners.

"One of these trees coming down could just wipe out whole families," which he said represents a major safety concern, as well as a liability to the village.

However, he too had "concerns" with the plan and pressed Cronin to provide fine and permit figures, which Cronin could not. Cronin said he'd have to consult the Village Engineer on permit fees, but sidewalk fees range from $25 to $200.

Councilwoman Walsh said the village should be concerned with finding a way to maintain the canopy.

"I think it is a responsibility of them [homeowners] – if you remove a tree, put it back in," she said, which drew argument from Killion. Walsh questioned how much maintenance was needed in terms of financial commitment, drawing a "it's a slippery slope" response from Killion.

Alternate ideas, resident response

Not impressed with the plan presented, Riche had his own ideas.

"Let's come up with a better plan and let's come up with a way to fund it," Riche said. He suggested that the village possibly add staff to the tree crew to take down right-of-way trees for a fee. "Maybe down the road we have a tree crew of five, not three...because we've got a revenue source."

He continued: "And at the same time we do that, Mr., Mrs. Resident, we plant a new one and it's part of the fee we charge for the whole property. That would be different."

Killion suggested bringing the village attorney into future discussions on shade tree matters.

None of the residents during public comment supported the conceptual plan presented.

"We cannot neglect the trees that are already between the curb and the sidewalk," resident Roger Wiegand said, adding new trees shouldn't be planted there. "We need a tree department...and we should probably maintain that department so they can maintain the trees properly."

"I think the key situation you've got here is unless you adopt a policy that mandates, not incentivizes that a tree be planted if it's removed, you could change the entire character of this community in 15-20 years," remarked resident Boyd Loving. He reminded the village council that some homeowners won't want the responsibility and "might not give a darn."

Resident Mike Sedon suggested there be something of a shared responsibility between the village and homeowners, resembling a buy-back program. He supported Deputy Mayor Riche's suggestion, adding there need to be incentives for homeowners to replant trees.

James Jr. September 26, 2011 at 06:35 PM
I love the shade trees around the Village, but sadly they are in horrible shape and many of the ones that have fallen or taken down are not replaced. I agree this policy is a slippery slope and could have dire consequences. Passing the liability onto the homeowner may result in even less maintained trees, people taking down the trees all together to prevent liability, and possible lawsuits pinning neighbors against neighbors (or the fight when the tree is in the middle of the properly line). I have a large shade tree and if the liability was handed to me, I would look into taking the tree down as a resident I couldn't afford the potential claims (nor do I have a lawyer on my payroll). Maybe there should be more responsibility of the home owner to alert the Village when dead branches are visible. What is next, any pot holes on the street will become the homeowner's responsibility. Related question, are the retiring employees in charge with only tree maintenance or do they do other tree duties around the Village? Do they do any jobs that would not require an outside company to perform?
Dominick Nizza September 26, 2011 at 07:29 PM
Trees originally planted by the Village are often neglected and not properly trimmed and their roots oftened raise and damage the sidewalks and cause a hazard condition. Who is liable for sidewalk replacement then? And should the Village pick up part of the cost for replacement? And, how about damage caused by a weakened limb falling on a car parked at the curb or connecting driveway? Let's look carefully as to where we are going with this one.
RdgwdGRock September 26, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Here's an idea: let's get rid of the town government and let common sense prevail. Just think of the savings from this.
Lawrence September 26, 2011 at 08:31 PM
One mans "common sense" is another mans nightmare. Some might say it's common sense that Valley needs all the expansion they are asking for but other, not so much. Some think turf fields in flood plains are a great ideas, others do not. A developers planner thought putting three houses on a single residential lot was a great idea, the neighbors thought otherwise. I could go on and on.
Michael September 26, 2011 at 10:08 PM
I they are placing the burden in the hands of the homeowner, then the Village should relinquish their say over what the homeowner does to/with the trees. There are houses in their 5th year of construction due to the Village Hall's nonchalant attitude. If this were to extend getting permits for tree maintenance as well, we'll be living in a jungle. I would suggest that Mr. Cronin place a want ad for staff, pronto!
Boyd A. Loving September 26, 2011 at 10:20 PM
A transfer of any responsibility from the Village directly to property owners should be accompanied by a corresponding reduction in property taxes. Deputy Mayor Riche is spot on; this proposal stinks.
James Kleimann September 26, 2011 at 11:09 PM
Actually, Michael, there is a wanted ad up on the village website. http://www.ridgewoodnj.net/EmploymentOp.cfm
Lisa Ertle September 27, 2011 at 01:00 AM
Does any other village actually do this? It would be interesting to see how something like this played out in a similar place. (I think I need to put up a shingle for the ACME TREE INSURANCE AGENCY, quick).
TOM B September 27, 2011 at 09:22 AM
TOM B September 27, 2011 at 09:38 AM
PLAYAC September 27, 2011 at 10:06 AM
A lot of people in Ridgewood don't maintain the existing trees on their own properties - now you want to ask them to to take on the additional burden of maintaining trees in the right-of-way? You're fooling yourself Mr. Cronin - by the way can you take down the large dead tree (no canopy) that's in the middle of Citizen's Park. Before agreeing on any policy that shifts responsibility of the right-of-way trees to homeowners, is the Village going to prune the trees or get rid of the diseased or dead trees already in the right-of-way so homeowners are not adopting "lemons"?
RdgwdGRock September 27, 2011 at 12:32 PM
The ad states "Responsibilities include, all trypes of tree work...". What is a "trypes"? I suppose spelling and grammar are not a requirement.
Nol Van Schiek September 27, 2011 at 12:32 PM
As long as your neighbors insurance pays for your tree damage in this state, no one will take care of their trees. Make them liable and everyone will take care of theirs. City plants it, city maintains it.... Resident plants it, resident maintains it... and is responsible for the damage they cause....
RdgwdGRock September 27, 2011 at 12:33 PM
trees, trees? we don't need no stinkin trees.
Harlan Consider September 27, 2011 at 12:49 PM
Call PSE&G if you have a tree that looks like it is a potential threat to utility poles and wires. They will come and do any necessary tree trimming for free. This is a big help in preventing power outages during storms.


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