My Take – Destruction of the Society Hill Shelterbelt of Trees

I feel compelled to post about this devastating act and the process by which the actions were taken to cut down en masse this majestic Shelterbelt.  While we should all be able to acknowledge the environmental impact of the Shelterbelt being destroyed, which protected the Society Hill homes along the Walkway during Hurricane Sandy and offered a thriving ecological sanctuary to City residents and wildlife, there are both the economics and the political process that need to be distilled a bit, which unfortunately only make this decision more disheartening.

When the Friends of the Walkway (FOTW) formed 10 years ago, founded by Denise Bailey and Vern Carlson, it was but a single act by two civic individuals to start a process of community engagement towards protecting one of Jersey City’s special environmental assets.  Over the years, unlike what is being perpetuated by current public officials, the FRIENDS of the FOTW network grew in number, into a virtual organization that worked together to gain input from the 1425 homeowners at Society Hill.  They garnered more than 1000 signatures during their door-to-door outreach for paper petition signatures + over 250 most recently at their digital petition site, in order to offer alternatives to the DPWA choice (Droyers Pointe & Society Hill umbrella association), which was to level these trees so they would not have to maintain them.  Recently, quotes from the administration and Council have pointed to the FOTW as a body of one individual who has no political weight in the grand scheme of things, and that FOTW petition signatures did not represent the broader residential support for the Shelterbelt to remain intact  – FAKE FACT #1.

SJC’s main goal remains to provide a platform for educational advocacy and we open source the communications platform we have built, making our social media channels, blog and website a toolkit available to community leadership.  Case in point, we have not only supported the efforts of FOTW since our inception in 2011, but were happy to give their voices some leverage thru the use of our platform in order to reach many constituents on behalf of saving these Trees.  I have personally worked with the FOTW since 2011 and have great admiration for the thoughtful leadership of Denise and Vern, who have sacrificed countless hours in trying to provide a forum for intelligent exchange about how best to manage maintenance of the Walkway and the 84 Trees that had lined the Hackensack River at their Society Hill community.  

There are those that suggest that all the trees needed to come down because they were the wrong trees that were planted in the wrong place in the wrong way - FAKE FACT #2.  Take a look around, and notice that all over Jersey City there are wrong tree plantings.  We learn as we go and we have to start where we are.  While we now most recently have Forestry Standards which guide the type, optimal location and best way to plant (e.g., larger tree pits finally!), there was never consideration to flat line level Jersey City’s Tree Canopy and start over.  Work around strategies prevail across the City and offer creative and low-cost alternatives to protecting the existing tree canopy, including those offered by FOTW from its earliest days.

It is unfortunate that while MANY years ago, a JC Shade Tree Commission was written into the municipal code, there is no Mayoral appetite to give expert authority and resources to our urban forestry debacle.  We desperately need, but still do not have in place, a JC Shade Tree Commission devoted to this single purpose.  Why, given there has been lip service paid that Trees are a priority of this administration?  Even with the findings of the Tree Canopy Study in 2015 (we should be at 44% coverage for an urban area our size in this geography, yet with consideration of the dead or dying population of trees, the calculation is that we have an existing tree canopy of 14 %), resistance by the current administration to constitute a dedicated body of citizens that would oversee the protection of our existing trees and grow our tree canopy persists.   

Our deficit tree canopy contributes to Jersey City’s challenges of stormwater management, the urban heat island effect, rising emissions from buildings and traffic, and air pollution issues – did you know that JC has one of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the NJ?  Whether folks wish to admit it or not, Trees are a significant attribute to urban life, be it increased property values, general quality of life or the economic attributes associated with the ecosystem services they perform.

Neither the JC Environmental Commission (JCEC) or the DPW Parks & Forestry Division have the oversight capacity to manage the process to protect our existing tree canopy or to grow it.  Jersey City does not even have a certified tree arborist on staff, with only a brief stint by one which punctuated this hole since DPW Director Rodney Hadley was let go – he was a certified NJ arborist.  And in cases where public access open space is concerned, e.g., the Society Hill Walkway, there is no dedicated oversight to applications for land use ‘improvements’ when it comes to Removal of Trees (JC Tree Ordinance loophole – see Section 321-6 re: definition of ‘improvements’ – is left to interpretation).

During the development of the JC Tree Ordinance, SJC and FOTW appealed to City Planning and the JCEC, (again to the JCEC most recently, who was deemed by City Planning as standing in for the lack of a formalized JC Shade Tree Commission) to provide for land use related review and oversight, e.g., public access walkways, plazas and open spaces, as regards the process of Tree Removal.  Unfortunately, we found that there was no bandwidth in JCEC or the Planning Department to do this and the responsibility for managing questionable Tree Removal fell to the DPW / Parks & Forestry Division thru a Tree Removal Application Process, which we have now seen is quite flawed. 

While the City has all along had the authority to step in and correct the tripping hazards on the Walkway, effected by years of neglect of standard tree root maintenance, they express they did not want to intervene with a private association issue and its residents.  Again, no oversight or enforcement authority for these matters exists as a matter of process in Jersey City. (Ref docs re: JC Tree Ordinance Loophole and Society Hill Residential Deed showing DPWA Bylaws and authority of City of Jersey City to resolve negligent care of the Walkway and the Trees there.)

Another set of rumors being perpetuated by the current administration are that the 1) Society Hill Walkway was damaged during Hurricane Sandy (2012) and has been closed since then – FAKE FACT #3, as the Walkway was closed last October due to insurance liability issues related to tripping hazards that had gone unrepaired; also 2) that most of the Trees were in dire health – FAKE FACT #4, whereas assessments by prior administrators (Rodney Hadley, Bob Cotter, Mark Redfield as recent at 2016) and the JCEC, not to mention the certified arborist report commissioned by the FOTW in 2014, and the recent informal assessments by the NJ Tree Foundation and Bartlett Tree Experts, attesting to the general good health of these trees, but for a few.  London Plane trees are quite resilient (absorb more air pollution than any other tree) and these 30+ year old Trees, while needing some attention, had a good future ahead of them.

We were told by City officials that what was needed was a RECENT certified arborist report.  I was encouraged to connect SJC’s contact at Bartlett Tree Experts to Director Stamato for the purpose of the City getting some credentialed report on the condition of the Trees.  I did so and then the City chose not to commission a report from Bartlett Tree Experts, or apparently any other certified arborist.  Why?

Even most recently, in the process of assurances from the current DPW Director Pat Stamato and Councilwoman Ridley that the Tree Removal Application Process would save the majority of these trees (that ‘only 10-15 of the trees needed to be replaced due to their compromised health), the consensus amongst City officials has consistently been that this Shelterbelt of Trees could absolutely remain intact and the insurance liability issues needed to be addressed with a sane approach. 

The best and most cost-effective conclusion would have been to remove the enormous 1-ft deep concrete slabs that were suffocating the trees and causing the roots to lift the slabs for air and water, by simply replacing the slabs with modular pavers.  An overtime attrition strategy, if getting rid of these ‘wrong trees’ was the goal, would have certainly been better than the severe choice of cutting everything down, healthy and non-healthy trees, all at once.  Obviously, replacing these 30 + year old trees with 3” girth saplings can never recover the lost asset value removal of mature growth trees (this alternative is provided for in the Forestry Standards without penalty, i.e., as long as you are replacing trees there is no fee that is assessed as the  intent is for there to be a fee penalty only IN LIEU of replacing a tree.  This is outlandish as no 3” sapling can ever replace the financial economic value of a 30-year old wide girth tree; this is another loophole that does not serve the public or the goal of increasing the ecosystem benefits of an enlarged urban forestry canopy).

The political process that seemed to come to bear was extraordinary for me to bear witness to.  Not only am I forever surprised by the blatant disregard for doing the right thing, but while I am old enough to not be surprised by bad behavior, the closing of ranks and the lack of transparency and divisive side dealing by officials who had the consummate authority to lead a roundtable of stakeholders toward a mutually satisfactory result, one which would overcome insurance liability concerns and provide for the ecology to remain intact, was disappointing and is a personal Lesson Learned.  SJC will also take this lesson into account when advocating for a more sustainable and resilient Jersey City.  Clearly, the attempt to discredit Denise, Vern and FOTW and their civic activities, is thwarting and it sends a powerful message.  I suppose given SJC’s support of the FOTW efforts, we are now put in the same boat, especially since I will not sit by.  I urge folks to re-read the story accurately chronicled on the FOTW website, their Petition page and on SJC’s website Resources page.  Links below –

·         #TREESPEECH

·         Saving The 84 Mature Shelterbelt of Trees At Society Hill - Oct 2018

o    Map of Society Hill Shelterbelt of Trees

o    Petition

o    FOTW website

o    Part 1 - 84 Mature Trees To Be Cut Down At Society Hill Walkway - Why Did This Happen ?

o    Part 2 - LESSONS LEARNED - Destruction of Shelterbelt

o    Part 3 - Temporary Moratorium By The JC Environmental Commission

o    Part 4 - Reference Docs / JC Tree Ordinance Loophole & Society Hill Association Bylaws Giving City of Jersey City the Authority to Intervene

o    Part 5 - JC Forestry Standards - see p. 18 section II.F for penalties; none are due if you replace a mature tree with a 2.5 inch sapling.

o    Part 6 - Proposed Alternatives by Friends of the Walkway

§  Budget Comparison 

For the record, I was present at early summer meetings with Director Stamato and Councilwoman Ridley, one of which took place in Denise Bailey’s living room and after which we took a stroll on the Walkway to examine the Trees.  Not only was assurance given then that cutting down all the Trees was not necessary to accomplish the task of proper Walkway maintenance, but the same assurance was provided at a meeting hosted by Director Stamato with Parks & Forestry present; also in attendance was City Legal and City Engineering.  While the DPWA association was invited to the meeting to discuss options, they chose not to attend.  To Director Stamato’s credit, he tried at first to bring a roundtable discussion together, but unfortunately it required more perseverance – that didn’t happen and offline meetings ensued between City officials and the DPWA, their attorneys and Falcon Engineering.  Things began to shift and by the time of the July 25th public forum at Society Hill with Mayor Fulop, the Mayor, who had previously supported the idea of ‘no healthy tree shall be removed’, was punting and publicly encouraged the DPWA to meet with residents and ‘let the City know what they wanted to do – the City would comply’.  Where did this change in commitment to not remove healthy trees come from?

It was the case that the DPWA refused to meet with residents and ultimately Councilwoman Ridley communicated that all stakeholders were conferred with and all the Trees would come down and the Walkway would then be opened again.  Neither FOTW or SJC were conferred with regarding the change in sentiment.  Denise Bailey (co-founder of FOTW) received a cursory voice message just before the public announcement about the decision to remove all the Trees.  No further explanation was offered.  Residents were held hostage by the Walkway closure a year ago and in exasperation conceded the Trees – in fact, this was a false choice they were given after their public outrage about the inflated contract by Falcon Engineering to remove the Trees at that July forum.  Residents that ‘were conferred with’ were told that the Walkway could not reopen if the Trees did not come down.  Residents of course chose the Walkway, fatigued by a 10-year battle, in which the City did not engage the residents or in this last leg of things, lead the stakeholders toward a proper resolution.  Again, the JC Tree Ordinance, the Tree Removal Permit Process and the Forestry Standards were meaningless.

Certainly, the Mandate Letters by Directors Cotter, Redfield and Hadley, the Letters of Support, and most recently the Letter from JCEC directing a STOP to cutting down the Trees in order to verify the health of the Trees, showed City support for the right thing to happen.  However, decisions taken to issue Removal Permits for ALL TREES by the DPW Parks & Forestry Division, and the game of ‘hot potato’ amongst City officials leading to ‘no further discussion’ in the matter, is what prevailed.  In the end, perhaps it was insurance challenges (self-inflicted by the association and the City), or simply the opportunity to have residents at Society Hill pay for a large cost contract so the City would not have to begin a process of facilitating alternative solutions (costs time and money), or perhaps it is entirely another set of complications that the City has refused to discuss, that overcame this 10-year effort and fatigued all the residents.  Bottom line, there was quite a bit of negligence to go around and it is an unfortunate outcome that lacked integrity. 

While I apologize for this lengthy blog post and for not reaching out to you all sooner for support (thanks to all the individuals and those community orgs that did lend assistance and added their voices to the FRIENDS), I am left with the need to urge continued dialog about this shameful event.  Since 2011, when our Sustainable JC Collaborative Network launched, with Green Infrastructure as our main focus in JC, our organization has supported a large number of individuals and community orgs who were stepping up and providing hands-on activities to preserve precious social, environmental and economic resources within the City.  SJC’s model of distributed leadership across Jersey City, started with and still perpetuates the idea, that single acts of stewardship and civic action, make a difference – in fact, we contend that it is this difference that makes Jersey City what it is today and will lead, albeit slipping and sliding, Jersey City into its next phase of a more sustainable and resilient place to live and work.  

Please offer your comments to this post, reach out to your Council members, voice and vote for greater sustainability and resiliency measures in Jersey City, and most of all do something of significance for your neighborhood.  While SJC’s focus has been green civics, we understand it must be balanced with social and economic betterment; indeed, this is the core definition of a sustainable community.  So count on us to support your work and your actions in all of these areas as you seek to contribute to your neighborhoods and to the future of Jersey City. 

As a place to start, perhaps the silver lining to this fiasco will be citizens standing together to demand the JC Shade Tree Commission be constituted, and the loopholes in the JC Tree Ordinance and the Forestry Standards be addressed.

Lastly, it is very important for community orgs to find specific and measurable ways to collaborate and join each other’s actions.  This is obviously a challenge given the skeletal structures, funding constraints and individual priorities, but we must find a way.  Jersey City needs more active coalitions that can work together to design the future of our city.  Administrations come and go and what we are left with are ground hog day experiences that do not represent the aspirations of our citizens and what SJC hopes will be the greenest and cleanest city in the state of NJ.  We can do better.

Warm regards,

Deb Italiano

Founder & Chair, Sustainable JC

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