Part 2 - LESSONS LEARNED, 84 JC Trees To Be Cut Down At Society Hill Walkway

This post continues from yesterday - refer to 84 Mature Trees To Be Cut Down At Society Hill


The City’s decision process was not made transparent to residents.  There are however Lessons Learned about 1) PUBLIC ACCESS right of way properties, 2) Non-transparent Residential Development Boards, 3) Civic Participation, 4) JC Trees Ordinance Loophole, and 5) City Officials which may help others who are dedicated to their communities.

1.  Public Access Right of Ways – after years of abstaining their authority to intervene to do tree maintenance and repairs of the Walkway (as stated in the Society Hill Deed reference to ‘common / public spaces”) the City decided to let a DPWA sponsored Engineering Contractor come in to do this privately and charge the residents of Society Hill a hugely expensive sum of money to remediate the public access walkway.  This is a case study in Buyer Beware – if you reside at a private property that is adjoined to public access right of way (walkway, plaza, etc.), you should be concerned with the following –

a.    Since the City negotiates these Developer deals with the intent to sell these public spaces to the community and prospective buyers as an amenity, beware the down the road property maintenance costs that will hit your building development.  The City structures the deal so that all maintenance costs and responsibilities are assumed by that Residential Building Development.  Remember, PUBLIC ACCESS means more wear and tear and an inability to have protective restrictions in place that are typically available to private property owners.  In addition the public spaces can be even more complex structurally than the Society Hill Waterfront Walkway, which opens up other issues beyond tree care. 

b.    If this is the new normal (passing along costs for development and maintenance of public access right of ways to residents) on top of the property taxes we pay, BEWARE!  Officials do not want to assume these responsibilities and Developers / Building Owner Landlords are passing these costs on to residents.  This structures a convoluted agreement whereby issues that come up like what is happening with the Society Hill Walkway & Shelterbelt of Trees, a game of “hot potato” and deal settlements that negate and undermine protective measures like the Tree Ordinance.

c.    While the Society Hill Deed references the City’s authority and ability to jump in if maintenance of “common space” aka the Society Hill Walkway, is not attended to by the Development, with provision to pass along the cost of repairs, maintenance, etc. to the Development, the City has refused to intercede and repair the walkway or maintain the trees.  Given this was their position at Society Hill, they will unlikely do this elsewhere so don’t depend on the City to save the day!   Check the Deed language for clarification of responsibility and ultimate recourse for “common or public spaces” at respective Developments.

d.    .Even though SH1, SH2, DP are private developments, when there is a public access right of way that occupies a portion of private property like the SH walkway, since the city does not want to maintain these public spaces; the burden and frankly legal oversight falls on the private association.  The city should have oversight authority to these public spaces - there are no written guidelines that provide for associations to be overseen by city authorities, so there are no enforcement options for residents, even when public access spaces are the issue.  Anything could go on with any sort of deal making scheme which is not in the best interest of the residents.

2.    Non-transparent Boards - The DPWA neither shared the RFP to remediate the Walkway, nor the contract with Falcon Engineering that was awarded, with residents.  The DPWA closed the walkway last Oct due to repair issues that have been pending for 10 years.  They held the walkway hostage with the closure and with the clock ticking on insurance cancellation for the walkway (City would also be liable) and escalating tensions from residents not having access to their waterfront.  The DPWA refused to meet with residents to discuss alternative solutions and purported to the City that the only way to repair the walkway properly was for all the trees to be removed.

a.    Development Association Boards are tricky and residents should make sure they elect solid board members.  In the case of Society Hill and Droyers Pointe, the DPWA does not operate transparently, e.g., they have not publicly posted their by-laws.  Nor does the DPWA make RFP and service contracts easily accessible to residents for review and scrutiny for financial or other considerations.  Nor do they respond to inquiries and requests.  And in this case, the DPWA has not worked in the best interest or voice of the residents.

3.    Civic Participation - It would seem that petitions (no matter how many signatures) are irrelevant to City Officials.  Similarly, professional assessments from accredited environmental non-profits, and certified arborists can be decidedly overlooked and not even given the respect of a review.  Also, public meetings (such as the July 25th DPWA & Fulop SH resident meeting) that claimed to be an opportunity for ideas to be shared, voices to be heard, and votes to be taken, are often just window dressing rather than an exchange that really matters… in fact, they often are not.

Clearly the backroom deal that was made between City Officials and         Falcon Engineering, funded by the DPWA (who has been against the    maintenance of the trees and was irresponsible on the repairs of the         walkway for the last 10 years), seems to have more power on what   prevails than civic participation in JC.

4.    The Jersey City Tree Ordinance has a LOOPHOLE and in the case of Public Access properties, there is no clarity as to “ownership”, (i.e., is the Development the ‘owner of the property’ or are they ‘an adjoining property owner’ ?)  As an adjoining property owner, allowance is made for removal if “improvements” are required.  Who oversees “improvement requirements” ?  Given this was the guise under which these 84 trees are being removed, “improvements” can seem to mean anything and that decision can be arbitrary. See Section 321-6 of the ordinance.

a.    The Tree Removal Permit Application - the Friends of the Walkway and Sustainable JC were assured the Removal Permit Application Process would protect the majority of the healthy 84 mature trees - clearly that is not the case and it is negotiable and can be a discretionary decision depending on the deal makers who come to the City, even those who favor cutting down trees.

5.            City Officials in past administrations, while not wanting to take on the direct maintenance of these trees and repairs to the Walkway, were very clear that these 84 mature trees did not need to come down and that the DPWA was being negligent, so past Directors of Planning and the DPW issued a written directive, which unfortunately was never complied with, and enforced by current city officials.  This included putting a Maintenance Plan in place which has never been done.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a mechanism to enforce mandates such as these or clear guidance for how residents can be in touch with specific City agencies to resolve issues such as this.  In the case of the current administration, DPW / Parks & Forestry, City Planning, Legal and Engineering all weighed in and consistently attested verbally that the new JC Tree Ordinance Permit Requirement for Tree Removal would manage a positive outcome to not remove all these trees, that inspections showing a few of the trees that were dead or dying would require these trees to be removed, and the rest would remain standing as Removal Permits would be denied.  Nothing was ever put in writing by the City to assure this and Friends of the Walkway received only cursory email correspondence from the City, even after expressing concern that the DPWA would not meet with residents.  Meeting with residents was encouraged by the Mayor at his July 25th Town Hall - he publicly suggested for the DPWA to do so.  The punting from one city department to another, and from Mayor Fulop to Councilwoman Ridley, was extraordinary and divisive - private meetings were structured with the various parties to this, facilitated by the City, and never were all parties at the table together.

I It is unfortunate that the City could not effect the bridgework required to resolve matters in a beneficial way to save at least the majority of these trees – there was certainly a lot of window dressing, using the Tree Ordinance as cover, but the decision to cut down these 84 mature Shelterbelt Trees was agreed to offline between the City, DPWA and Falcon Engineering - JC residents and environmental groups were never included at the table.

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