By Ron Leir
On a fateful Monday morning in late October 2012, Tony Valente was watching TV on the first floor of his Jefferson Ave. home when he was shaken out of his chair by a loud thud.
Apparently weakened by Superstorm Sandy, the 85-foottall pin oak that had stood nearby for many years had just toppled onto his roof.
“It just came through the attic to the floor below … right over my head,” Valente recalled. Luckily, no one inside the house was hurt, he said. But as the downed tree lay draped over the back of his home, “it was 10 a.m. when it hit but [from inside] it looked like it was dark out. That’s how huge that tree was.”
Valente said he’d previously tried to get the town to take it down after it “looked like it had rotted at the bottom” and the roots were raising the cement. Town workers cut part of the roots but that was it, he said.
On another nearby block, also in the Manor section, another hollowed-out tree fell through a house to the first floor, Valente recalled.
With town crews running to emergency situations all over, Valente ended up getting a private contractor to haul the tree away four days after it fell. He said the town later reimbursed him for the cost of disposing of the tree.
As this year’s winter storm season looms, the town government wants to head off any new disasters so, to that end, it enlisted the aid of West Orange arborist John D. Linson who was asked to check on the condition of 159 oak and maple trees in the Manor section where many of the town’s tallest and oldest trees – some 100 feet high – are found.
Of that total, Linson told the governing body at last Tuesday’s meeting, that he found 23 trees “that, in my opinion, need to be removed at this time” either because a tree’s “structural integrity” has been compromised or because its roots are “compromising a sidewalk or driveway.”
Linson’s report listed one tree on Webster Ave., three trees on Hamilton Ave., four on Jefferson, two on Bayard Ave., six on West Bennett Ave. and seven on Livingston Ave. as candidates for immediate removal.
But many other trees needed the town’s attention, Linson said, for various reasons:
* Too big for the planting area.
* Pushing out curbing or sidewalks.
* Trunk is too lean or unbalanced.
* Base is decayed.
* Weakened by carpenter ants.
* Hollowed out trunk or compromised branches.
* Damaged by storm.
* Conflicting with underground or overhead utilities.
* Excessive root pruning. Linson’s analysis found that most of the oaks “were planted in the 1930s and ‘40s” and, “as such, they are at the end of their natural life span” as street trees.
As those trees were beginning to grow, Linson said, Kearny’s Shade Tree unit was considered to be “in the forefront of tree maintenance,” but in the past few decades, it has been winnowed down by budget cuts. As of 2012, Kearny was listed as a “Tree City” by the state Department of Environmental Protection, but, nonetheless, Linson believes that the number of trees in town has fallen from around 10,000 to fewer than 8,000 currently.
Linson advised the town to coordinate tree removal and replacement with road resurfacing projects, “to only plant compact tree species (like calipers) under overhead [power] lines to avoid future conflict,” to consider getting easements from property owners to plant larger trees on front lawns, and to extend sidewalks – and the town’s right-of-way – to allow for planting new trees “on the house side.”
Several Kearny officials found it hard to grapple with the idea of taking down any trees.
As Councilwoman Susan McCurrie put it: “We’ve all grown up with these trees. It’s difficult, all of a sudden, to change the character of a neighborhood. An overnight change would be dramatic.” But if chopping has to be done, she added, it’s best to focus on “those trees deemed to be most at risk, not a wholesale removal.”
After reading Linson’s report last week, Councilwoman Eileen Eckel agreed that the trees were “beautiful,” but that many were now “past their prime” and had “potential for injury” to people and property “and that’s something we have to weigh with their aesthetic appeal. … We’d be remiss in not dealing with it.”
Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle cautioned that the town is potentially looking at a “big expense” and added that Linson was probably underestimating when he said it would cost $1,200 to take down a tree. And, she said, “we don’t have it allocated in our budget.”
But, she conceded that the town needed to start the job on a limited basis because of the safety issues involved. At the same time, Doyle said, the town needs to meet with the residents involved before launching any action to avoid a repeat of what happened about eight years ago when a contractor doing repaving and water line work on Oakwood Ave. between Kearny and Schuyler Aves. took down a bunch of trees. “It happened so fast, we didn’t have time to react,” she said.
Mayor Alberto Santos said the town takes pride in a Manor neighborhood “known for its expansive tree canopy, but in light of recent storms, I think the tenor has changed dramatically.” Still, he said, because of the cost factor, “it has to be done piecemeal” on the basis of which trees are deemed to cause the most serious safety concerns. And, “for every tree removed, we have to make sure it’s replaced.”
Said Eckel: “We should look on a street-by-street basis, on the basis of a worst case scenario, and keep any new plantings below power lines. And we have to figure out how to pay for it.”