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Shade Tree group may be cut

Who will speak for the trees? The question explored decades ago by Dr. Seuss is now being debated in a woodsy South Jersey town where a 43-year-old Shade Tree Commission faces the ax.

Southampton Shade Tree Commission members Brett Hann (left) and Douglas Melegari.
Southampton Shade Tree Commission members Brett Hann (left) and Douglas Melegari.Read moreCURT HUDSON / For The Inquirer

Who will speak for the trees? The question explored decades ago by Dr. Seuss is now being debated in a woodsy South Jersey town where a 43-year-old Shade Tree Commission faces the ax.

On Tuesday, the Southampton Township Committee is expected to abolish the commission, saying the group of volunteers has too much power and has become too aggressive. The vote comes at a time when the commission is surveying thousands of trees in the 43-square-mile community and is devising a strategy to deal with a dreaded beetle that threatens to wipe out ash trees in the area.

"The state expects 99.5 percent of the ash trees to be extinct within the next several years," Douglas Melegari, chairman of the commission, said in an interview last week. "If the commission is disbanded, no one will be keeping an eye on the problem."

The emerald ash borer, which has killed tens of millions of ash trees across the country, was first seen in New Jersey last year.

Signs saying "Save Our Shade Tree Commission" have appeared on lawns scattered about the rural Burlington County community on the edge of the Pinelands.

Town officials say they want to replace the commission with an advisory committee that will make recommendations on what needs to be done with the trees.

In Dr. Seuss' book The Lorax, the mustachioed creature said someone needs to speak for the trees, "for the trees have no tongues."

But Committeeman Ronald Heston, liaison to the Shade Tree Commission, said the trees won't be neglected under the proposal to eliminate the commission. "My only concern is [the commission] has the right to make their own ordinances or modify existing ordinances as they pertain to trees. I think elected officials should do that," he said in an interview last week.

Currently, the town committee appoints five volunteers to the commission whose purpose is to protect trees while also identifying hazardous trees that should be removed.

Heston said that he wasn't aware until recently that the commission also can order residents to chop down trees on private property if they're considered dangerous.

That, he said, triggered some concern.

In June, the commission reviewed letters ordering six residents to remove certain trees on their properties as soon as possible. In one case, he said, a tree was leaning over too far.

The letters were never sent, but Heston said that he told a resident who would have received one about the correspondence. The resident became upset that the commission had such power and that, if the resident had ignored the order, the commission could have removed the tree and then billed him, Heston said.

Melegari said the commission's job is to protect the public from trees on public and private property, but only when there is a threat of injury or property damage. "We wouldn't send letters out for a tree in a field," he said. "I'm a tree lover and I hate to see them removed. . . . But when a tree falls and injures someone, it changes a community's perception about trees."

Melegari said the commission decided to wait to consult with a certified tree expert before mailing the letters.

Melegari said that in recent years, the commission has obtained a grant to purchase a bucket truck to trim trees, and has gotten certifications for Southampton to obtain other grants. He said the commission also plans to apply for state funds to manage the expected destruction of ash trees.

Mayor James Young, who has been in office more than two decades, said that he has no problems with the commission, but that he wants it disbanded because it is too powerful. "The main thing is we're trying to make sure our residents are protected," he said.

Brett Hann, a member of the Shade Tree Commission, said he is baffled by the mayor's remarks. "There's environmental and zoning and planning commissions that all come with powers, so why eliminate the Shade Tree Commission?" he asked.

Hann said that having a commission protects a township from liability if a public tree injures a person or destroys property. He cited a state law that allows municipalities to create Shade Tree Commissions and that describes the special liability protection that comes with them.

In Southampton, the commission has become a victim of "small-town politics," Hann said. "The committee needed somebody to blame for the whole Vincentown tree affair."

In June, residents in the historic Vincentown section of the township created an uproar after they learned a row of tall shade trees on Main Street would be axed, all at once, within a few days. Their branches were entangled with the utility wires and a couple of residents had complained.

But the neighborhood protested and said the nine trees in question were healthy and just needed trimming.

After weeks of finger-pointing between commission members, town officials and county officials who had all discussed the fate of the trees, the decision was rescinded.

"The commission created the controversy," Heston said. "They were asking for things to be done and had contacted the county about the trees."

Melegari said the commission had notified the county of the complaints because the trees are located on a county-owned road. But he said the commission asked the county to determine whether the trees were hazardous before taking any action to remove them.

After the residents objected, two tree experts hired by the utility company determined that the trees were healthy and the county officials canceled the removal order.

Three months later, when tensions died down, the Shade Tree Commission hired an expert to take yet another look at the Main Street trees and to make recommendations. Melegari said the expert confirmed the nine Main Street trees posed no threat, but identified three others on that road that are hazardous and that they should come down.

"These are county trees," Heston said, questioning why that report was done.

Several weeks later, the township committee met and decided to introduce an ordinance to replace the commission. If the ordinance is adopted, a new shade tree advisory committee would be appointed in January.

856-779-3224 @JanHefler