Morristown may form shade tree commission for public education campaign

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Is it time for tree-age in Morristown?

Samantha Rothman of the town environmental commission thinks so.

“They’re coming down at a very alarming rate,” she told the planning board on Thursday.

Precisely how many trees are getting the ax is hard to say, however. Until now, there never has been anything like a tree census here.

That should change by summer’s end, when an intern from the Land Conservancy of New Jersey finishes recording information about all the street trees in town. This “Urban Forestry Initiative” began last year with a grant from Sustainable Jersey.

Samantha said town hall also is considering creation of a shade tree commission. It would serve as an information clearinghouse, taking some of the pressure off the town public works department, she said.

Another view of South Street tree that is on its way out. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
The carcass of this tree on South Street now is gone, as part of a sidewalk improvement project. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“They’re not the tree police,” Samantha said.

Rather, the commission could suggest ways to shore up weak trees, and advise people whether their trees are diseased or merely suffering from temporary conditions.

The state requires special training for volunteers to serve on such a panel.

While Morristown has a pretty strong ordinance prohibiting tampering with trees on municipal streets, another measure that requires permits for property owners to fell their own trees has so many exceptions it’s unenforceable, Samantha told the planning board.

Why all the fuss about trees?

“We live in an urban environment where every tree does a lot of work to cool and clean our air and provide soil- erosion prevention,” said Sam, who studied forestry at Yale. “When you have a town with few trees, each tree matters.”

Officials learned just how much each tree matters to people when the town started chopping down trees along South Street last month, prompting public questions and a few complaints.

The removals were part of a sidewalk improvement project and will benefit the town in the long run, Samantha said.  That’s because the chopped trees were of the brittle, short-lived Bradford pear variety. They will be replaced by several types of tree–so one disease won’t be able to wipe out everything, the way Dutch Elm diseased ravaged New Haven, CT., the “Elm City.”

In addition to its tree census, the town’s Office of Sustainability also is counting all the solar panels within its borders. Barbara Heskins Davis of the Land Conservancy said she hopes to incorporate both surveys into Morristown’s Environmental Resource Inventory, a catalog that is receiving its first update in eight years.

The Conservancy also is helping Morristown update its Open Space and Recreation Plan, last updated seven years ago. The work is funded through grants from the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

MORRISTOWN GREEN: Green areas denote open space in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
MORRISTOWN GREEN: Green areas denote open space in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Barbara recommended that Morristown ask the state Department of Transportation for recreational use of the unused Route 24 extension, which crosses Speedwell Avenue near the Morris Plains border.

Hanover already has obtained state permission to convert its portion of the right-of-way into the Pigeon Hill Trail, and Morris Plains is pursuing similar plans, Barbara said.

“It’s time that this land be turned over for public ownership,” Barbara said, estimating the land has been dormant for at least 20 years. “This is not going to be turned into a highway.”

That sparked some disagreement on the board.

“This town has hopes–maybe fantasies–of having that right-of-way built,” said board member Dick Tighe. “Morristown has horrendous traffic problems. This was and is viewed as a way of bypassing some of those problems.”

Board Chairman Michael Pooler countered that he favors recreational use of the right-of-way.

READ UPDATES OF THE ENVIRONMENTAL RESOURCE INVENTORY & OPEN SPACE AND RECREATION PLAN

Barbara Heskins Davis of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey addresses the Morristown Planning Board on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Barbara Heskins Davis of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey addresses the Morristown Planning Board on Thursday. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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