Saying they want "to protect residents" from a commission that had the authority to order them to remove dangerous trees on their properties, the Southampton Township Committee has voted unanimously to replace the group with an advisory committee.
The Shade Tree Commission "shouldn't be able to tell residents what to do with their private property," Committeeman Ron Heston said Wednesday, after the 5-0 vote Tuesday night. The committee created the commission 43 years ago but only recently learned it had such power, Heston said.
The commission has never notified residents that their trees had the potential to injure someone or harm property and needed removal, Heston said. But the group of three appointed volunteers considered sending out six letters to residents this year after surveying trees in the Burlington County community.
"I just don't want to see anyone force a resident to do anything they don't want to do," Mayor James Young said, noting a safety concern over a tree on private property may be "in the eye of the beholder." He said he had no issues with the current commission but wanted to prevent problems in the future.
Nearly 40 residents attended the meeting to protest the change, but the five-member committee had to weigh the concerns of all of 10,000 town residents, Heston said. He said an advisory committee is expected to be appointed next month.
The advisory committee would make recommendations to the township committee on ways to protect trees, and would file reports identifying trees on public lands that are hazardous and should be trimmed or axed.
Douglas Melegari, who was chairman of the commission, said the change would make Southampton "a less desirable place to live and work, because tree care won't be adequate without the commission." He said he had not decided whether he would apply for a seat on the advisory committee.
Melegari said the commission had spent many hours surveying the trees in the 43-square-mile community, and also received a grant to purchase a bucket truck to trim dead branches. The commission, he said, also had plans to plant trees and apply for funds to combat the emerald ash borer, which is expected to render ash trees extinct in the area in the next decade, according to tree experts.
An advisory committee will not be eligible to obtain the same grants because some require a certified community forestry management plan, Melegari said. The commission, he said, created such a plan, providing an edge in the application process.
Heston, who was liaison to the commission and attended its meetings, said he was not concerned about this because "some of these grants come with strings." Some require the township to come up with matching funds, or pay for a program up front and be reimbursed many months later, he said. Sometimes, this taxes the budget process, he said.
Heston said that the advisory committee would, however, look into ways to contain the destruction anticipated when the emerald ash borer arrives. The pest has killed tens of millions of trees across the country and was discovered in New Jersey a year ago. The funding would help officials slow the inevitable death of the trees and also help pay for the cost of removing the trees when they become unsafe.