Chips fly at Morristown council over Revolutionary tree

HE SAID, SHE SAID: Morristown First Ward Councilman Bob Iannaccone takes exception to comment by Fourth Ward Councilwoman Alison Deeb, Aug. 6, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Only God can make a tree. But who can remove one?

The question sparked lively debate at Tuesday’s Morristown council meeting, pitting residents of Morristown and Morris Township — and the council’s two Republicans– against each other over the role of the town’s volunteer Shade Tree Commission.

At stake: The fate of the state’s second-largest ash tree, which dates to the Revolutionary War. It stands in Burnham Park, which straddles the Town/Township border.

The Shade Tree Commission advocates removing ash trees before they can be ravaged by the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian bug sweeping the country. These insects kill ash trees, which then pose the danger of limbs falling on people.

‘THE WINDOW TO SAVE THESE TREES IS FAST CLOSING’: Joe Attamante of the Burnham Park Association addresses Morristown council, Aug. 6, 2019. Image: Town of Morristown

Implying that he had been rebuffed by the Shade Tree Commission, Township resident Joe Attamante, a trustee of the Burnham Park Association, asked the council to spare these trees. He presented a Rutgers expert who explained pesticide options.

“The window to save these trees is fast closing. We don’t have a lot of time,” said Attamante, who was not officially representing the park association.

His remarks spurred an impassioned rebuttal from Commission Chairperson Kristin Ace, and strong defenses of the Commission from town Administrator Jillian Barrick and Councilman Robert Iannaccone.

‘OUR CHILDREN PLAY IN THESE PARKS’ : Shade Tree Commission Chairperson Kristin Ace addresses the Morristown council, Aug. 6, 2019. Image: Town of Morristown

“I want to remind everybody that chemical companies are in the business of selling chemicals,” Ace said.

Although her commission is dedicated to saving trees, she said, public safety comes first. Five years of training sessions have failed to answer critical questions about long-term hazards of these pesticides, she said.

“The Shade Tree Commission felt the environmental negative impact would far outweigh the desire to save a tree. Our children play in these parks, our animals walk through these parks, other insects go through these parks. We don’t know what will happen,” said Ace, pointedly adding that none of the experts cited by Attamante has come to a Commission meeting.

In a rare display of anger, Iannaccone upbraided fellow GOP Councilmember Alison Deeb for recommending formation of a council subcommittee to sort out what she termed a “he said, she said” discrepancy.

“It’s not a ‘he said, she said.’ I really take exception to that,” Iannaccone said. “When we have a commission that’s part of our town, I believe my commission… I’m not going to challenge their integrity. They work hard, they donate their time, they do the education.”

Public concerns about trees should be brought to the Shade Tree Commission, Iannaccone asserted.

While praising the commissioners, Deeb noted they are appointees of Mayor Tim Dougherty, a Democrat. One of them, Shade Tree Commission member Sandi Mayer, is running against Deeb in this fall’s council race.

Deeb said she plans to establish a subcommittee with Councilman Stefan Armington to explore the Burnham Park matter.

Iannaccone and Deeb both seek re-election this year, albeit by unconventional routes. Iannaccone is running as an Independent in the First Ward.

Deeb, who had announced she was stepping down after three terms in the Fourth Ward because a longtime supporter signed a challenger’s petition, changed her mind when a write-in campaign placed her on the November ballot.


The Burnham family donated Burnham Park to Morristown in 1911, with the stipulation that the park provide passive recreation in perpetuity. Founded in 1948 and incorporated in 1973, the nonprofit Burnham Park Association includes volunteers from the Town and Township, who act as stewards for the property.

Association President Dr. Lynn Siebert on Friday emphasized that Attamante was not speaking on behalf of the association, which she said enjoys a good relationship with the town of Morristown.

“I can say that the BPA greatly appreciates having partners such as the Shade Tree Commission and the Town of Morristown and values the support of the Town in caring for the park. We have been steadfast in working WITH the Town on all matters regarding the park and we highly value that relationship.”

Many municipalities around the country, including cities such as Indianapolis, have responded to the ash borer threat with tree removal programs.

Madison, Harding and Princeton are among New Jersey towns that are saving some of their ash trees, according to Attamante. Morris County also is saving at least a dozen ash trees at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum, and could provide funding to save Burnham Park’s ash trees, he said.

If preserved, he suggested, Burnham Park’s trees might be included on historical walks by the Morris County Tourism Bureau. He said a state expert estimates one of the trees is 244 years old.

Attamante then presented George Hamilton, chairman of the entomology department at Rutgers.

George Hamilton, Rutgers chairman of entomology, addresses Morristown council, Aug. 6, 2019. Image: Town of Morristown

One option to save the ash trees, Hamilton said, is to introduce insects to eat the ash-eaters. But that’s time-consuming, and results are not guaranteed. Insecticides are the last resort; Hamilton described four of them.

However, those benzoids are listed as corrosive irritants posing health- and environmental hazards, and should not be used around water, bees or flowers, countered Ace, the Shade Tree Commission chair.

The ash trees in question border a freshwater pond. Benzoid treatments can spread from tree roots and falling leaves, Ace warned.

“A tree does not grow in a vacuum. The roots of a tree go into the earth. They search for water. So anything that is running up and down a tree is going to go into the earth and into our water,” she said.

Jillian Barrick, the town administrator, said the administration would continue to lean on the Shade Tree Commission and town Forester Richard Wolowicz for guidance.

“I will assure you that they have made infinite effort in educating themselves and making sure they have every bit of information they could possibly have with regards to the emerald ash borer,” Barrick said, noting the next Commission meeting is Tuesday, Aug. 13.

This story has been updated to include comments from Burnham Park Association President Dr. Lynn Siebert.

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  1. As William Needham said in his post, “How much longer are the residents of Morristown to be saddle with ever increasing taxes and municipal corruption in an era of unprecedented growth? While the council debates tree removal, I hope the residents are prepared for the 2020 property tax reassessment.”………..Not to worry, I’m sure that after all the growth of high rise, huge development buildings that the mayor and his boards have allowed all over in our town, property taxes will Surely Go Down !!….after all, the mayor keeps telling us such developments will help add to the tax base and that is wonderful thing…the mayor and his planner call it “smart growth”…We’ll see. how smart it is and how much the tax payers have been helped after the reassessment!!!

  2. It is completely unnecessary to take down historical trees in an attempt to hedge the “worst case scenario”. If the tree is ready to fall or is an immediate hazard to public safety then the trees should be removed, but until then, leave them where they stand.

    As a tax paying member of the public, I urge the elected representatives to vehemently debate why these never ending lawsuits against the town continue as they do these petty issues of tree removal.

    How much longer are the residents of Morristown to be saddle with ever increasing taxes and municipal corruption in an era of unprecedented growth?

    While the council debates tree removal, I hope the residents are prepared for the 2020 property tax reassessment.