Monday, October 20, 2008

Human Over Development or Deer Over Population?

A separate blog has been created to discuss the issue of the deer "hunt" in South Mountain Reservation.

Because this blog, Over development in West Orange, NJ, is the property of WE CARE (West Essex Committee Against Rezoning Excess) it was suggested that we keep the two issues separate. WE CARE has three significant objectives on its plate, and diluting our efforts could be detrimental.

One of the objectives of WE CARE is to halt or at least limit the residential and commercial development of forested and wet land areas---- such as the 180 acres behind the West Essex Highlands. This development will necessitate the removal of 27,000 trees to make way for a housing development of 129 single family homes. The forested area is adjacent to the towns of Essex Fells and Verona.

We are hopeful that the newly adopted tree ordinance in West Orange will challenge the developer sufficiently, and doubt that the current economic climate and real estate market would encourage any one to build at this time.

But, this objective of WE CARE should focus forward, as well as focus backwards. The economy will one day improve, as will the stock and real estate markets. So, we need to be proactive in preparation for that "one day". No one knows for sure how long it will be before it arrives. WE CARE needs to be in position for that "one day".

And WE CARE is proceeding to bring on legal counsel toward that end.

Which brings us to looking backwards.

Despite the diverging and often vitriolic opinions about the "hunt" in the Reservation, some calling it a necessity and some calling it a slaughter, there is consensus on one issue, and possibly only one issue.

That issue is the recognition that the displacement of the deer and their concentration in the Reservation stems from the removal of the native habitat of the deer throughout West Essex. At one point, man and deer did coexist and there was a natural order of predation that kept the number of deer limited. With the development, the natural predators have disappeared and the land for deer to graze on has been concentrated in the few natural areas still left in place.

Unfortunately, one of these areas is the South Mountain Reservation where the deer are being identified as the cause of defoliation, Lyme Disease and car accidents.

The evidence of this is counter pointed at every turn.

And we certainly can't undo the massive amount of development that has taken place already. No one is ready to give up their homes or parks or golf courses so that the deer can live safely.

But though we have made the effort to keep the deer issue and the land conservation issue two separate threads of conversation, they do intertwine.

And wherever the deer issue is going, those concerned with Over Development should be there as well. In this particular instance, the fate of one is in arguably tied to the fate of the other.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Deer Hunt Bogus on All Counts

This post has been moved to a new blog not associated with WE CARE. Please click here:

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Night at the Opera

Strange title ,this one, to describe a Municipal Council meeting in West Orange. Yet, the comparisons are possible.

This past Tuesday night, August 12, the Council convened for a second reading of the Tree Ordinance. This second reading was to be the culmination of a year's work on the part of several environmental volunteers and the Council members as well. In fact, the discussion languished for so long, there were now new members on the Council whose seal of approval would be the first significant business of their newly seated council membership.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the relatively large audience was "keyed up" awaiting the reading, much as the audience feels prior to an operatic performance.

Like the works of Puccini, this opera was to be verisimo, an ordinary event within a melodramatic situation.

And none who came were very disappointed in the performance.

Objections to certain vague definitions were repeated by several people who got up to speak, a chorus of harmonious voices.

There were high notes reached during the discussion when one council member or another appeared to find their voice..... and their purpose in serving on the council.

And though the evening ended late and not quite perfectly, the coda--- or conclusion---- was agreeable.

A not perfect, but reasonably good ordinance, was passed and the performers, both from the audience and from the council seats, were invited to take their bows.

Jerry Sharfman was lauded for his endurance and vision for leading the cast of environmental volunteers for low these many months. And the council as a whole was recognized for their deliberation and, in their final moments, their wisdom and flexibility.

But were I to single out two divas in the overall evening, it would be Councilwoman Susan McCartney who even in the last moments truly seemed determined to make the ordinance as strong as possible,as well as newly-elected Councilwoman Patty Spango who strengthened her own support of the better ordinance based on what she was seeing and hearing at this meeting. Both women deserve an extra round of applause and a few bravas for their attention and perseverance. As does Councilman Renard Barnes who, as newly elected President of the Council, is doing a bravissimo job of conducting council meetings with the patience and stature of a great statesman.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Ever Changing American Landscape

Having just returned from a week in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, the long ride home gave me ample opportunity to reflect on what was a glorious vacation.

Thinking about the Smokies as a vacation destination, I had been apprehensive about what we would find, having visited and loved this area over 40 years ago. But I did know that housing had sprung up and multiplied in the area of Highlands, the town where we would be staying, and the numerous real estate offices we passed on the outskirts as well as within the town center had me concerned. Would these be the Smokies I remembered so fondly?

There is no denying it. The area has certainly become much more residential with private homes and housing "developments" in significant proliferation. But almost all of the "developments" are out of view of the road, and walking through them one would hardly qualify most as developments as we know them in the north east. The homes in the Highlands in developments are on large parcels of land, and the trees and shrubbery surrounding them is so dense it's impossible to see other homes. Neighbors may as well be a mile down the road though most are only an acre or two away beyond the green borders.

Despite the building boom that has taken place in 40 plus years, the character of Highlands and most of the neighboring towns has changed little. The country surroundings remain green, serene and beautiful and the little town center of Highlands has grown up considerably. There are now several upscale restaurants, a lovely hotel, antique and gift shops, ice cream parlors and other niceties that the residential population increase obviously suppports. In many respects, it reminds me of the European "village" model I have always coveted, a country house within a quick drive or long walk to the village center.

Of course, in these same four decades, the character of West Orange has changed, as has the character of many of the surrounding towns---- though not nearly as dramatically. West Orange in the 1970's was certainly not the country setting that Thomas and Mrs. Edison preferred, choosing to live here in 1885 rather than reside in the much more metropolitan NYC. But it is still recognizable as compared to four decades ago.

However, projecting 40 years into the future---- as determined by the current tree ordinance under consideration----- the town will no longer have the slightest resemblance to what it is today, let alone what it was four decades previously. Should this ordinance go through with the latest language, West Orange will undoubtedly become so densely populated that whatever trees remain after the building takes place will be few and far between. It will be bricks and mortar, and little else. The trees will be the decimal points and commas between houses, not the lush setting for the homes that they are now.

For those who chose to live in West Orange for its acres of woodlands and pleasant green spaces, there will be little attraction to stay. For those who might consider moving here in the decades to come, the urbanization that will undoubtedly happen with a weak tree ordinance will only add costs and decrease quality of life making the township most unappealing.

What the City Council decides in 2008 in regards to the preservation and protection of trees can very well be the architectural plan for West Orange's future, if it is to have one at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Impact of Words

OK, we know that a municipal ordinance is not quite the stature of the Declaration of Independence, the writing Epidemics, or even the presidential inaugural address of 1961. But two things are clear. The current tree ordinance was crafted by some very good minds, and it took longer to craft than all three of these writings put together.

Most importantly, the power of words is immeasurable in what they connote and denote. Certainly the preamble to the current tree ordinance promises an appropriate document, one that will protect its greatest natural resource: " The Township Council of the Township of West Orange finds that: trees are among the Township’s most valuable natural resource assets, greatly enhancing the appearance of the Township and contributing to its suburban residential character."

But, alas, the promise is never fulfilled as one continues to read the subsequent clauses. The most striking lack of integrity in the language is signaled by the use of the phrase to the greatest extent possible. The phrase, in context, is the ultimate cop out, and compromises every other aspect of the ordinance. The circumvention of absolutes regarding the destruction, removal and replacement of trees, particularly as it relates to development projects, is in direct contrast to the golden promise of the preamble.

The council had the opportunity to be bold in creating this ordinance, but did not have the courage to commit to the vision they created in the first few paragraphs.

And if anyone believes that a few words here or there have no real impact, then consider these five words added on to the writings by Thomas Jefferson, Hippocrates and JFK.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of the greatest extent possible.

The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future - must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no the greatest extent possible.

And so, my fellow americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of the greatest extent possible.

Would we have thought these writers and their writings to be extraordiary with these five words added on to what have become iconic phrases in the American lexicon?

Hardly. Their addition would have created confusion and, most likely, scorn.

Things have not changed that much over the years. These five words as applied to what is right and what is wrong in guarding our resources only raise the suspicions and rankle those who feel the town, its residents, and most obviously, its trees, deserve better.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Welcome to the West Orange Puppet Show

The meeting of the West Orange Township Council last night was the culmination of the shell game the Council members have been playing for a year. Here's the tree ordinance, there's the tree ordinance, where's the tree ordinance?

First and foremost, for a town the size and complexity of West Orange to not have a protective (operative word here is protective) tree ordinance is egregious. After a year of consideration, debate and enormous input, to put forth the kind of gutless ordinance read last night goes beyond egregious. It is offensive.

Now, lest anyone get the idea that this is just another bungling, inept, municipal government let's set the record straight. The fact that the tree ordinance is so full of holes it makes swiss cheese look solid is not just the usual bad government at work. Indeed, the council members may be incapable of getting out of their own way, but that is not the core reason the tree ordinance has no teeth.

The tree ordinance is not just imperfect, it is impotent by design.

Why would the council members not want a good tree ordinance?

Certainly there is a circuitous trail of campaign funds. These have benefitted every one from Mayor McKeon to every Council member and trace back to a major developer who most assuredly would not benefit from having a strong tree ordinance instituted.

But beyond that there is the issue of abslolute power.

Senator Codey, John McKeon, and the developer for the project slated to bring down 27,000 trees behind the West Essex Highlands are just too close for comfort. The Mayor has been heard to claim (and in public) that he "promised" Wilf, the developer, that this project would come about.

Never mind that it was never properly vetted, that it flies in the green "face" the town pretends it has, that it is totally unacceptable to the towns adjoining the 180 acres of land where the development is to take place, that it has raised safety concerns even among West Orange police and fire officials, that virtually every resident who will be within sound and sight of the blasting that will have to take place first rejects the project....Never mind any of that. The Mayor made his promise, and the Mayor is an honorable man.

And so the developer greases the wheels and pulls the strings. The Mayor dances to the developer's tune. The Council serves as the triage point for the ordinances to be considered with each of the council members having an obligation, not to the town or to the residents, but to the Mayor himself.

Does that sound like too much inter-connectedness?

Welcome to the West Orange puppet show. Now aren't you happy you live here?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Poor Old Mrs. Jones

The West Orange Council Chambers were quite full tonight as residents protesting the weakening of the Tree Ordinance politely made their case for a stronger ordinance.... and listened to the Council attempt to explain their "dilemma".

The presentations of several in the audience were quite impressive. There was the mention of Mayor McKeon having supported the Kyoto Accord to reduce green house gases. And here is Mayor McKeon now backing more and more development and tree removal every day in his own town!

There was also the very visual presentation of a tree trunk which was used to demonstrate how trees absorb stormwater runoff. Were the council not so determined to keep the evening short, it could have been mentioned that trees save their host city millions of dollars in infrastructure costs.

But the confluence for the evening was the Council offering as rationale for this diluted and quite useless ordinance the fact that there are two opposing needs: the need to protect individual property owners' rights and the need to preserve the township's trees.

Even if this split in needs were not the ostensible rationale for the Council not having any tree ordinance in place for almost a year, the reasoning strains credibility for all of us watching this process unfold.

In previous discussions, the Council spoke of the poor woman who has neither health, nor youthful mobility, nor monetary resources to appeal if she needed to take down a tree and the ordinance got in her way. Poor Old Mrs. Jones.

Yet, Paul Tractenberg in his presentation, spoke of much more onerous, expensive and confusing ordinances that would necessitate that Mrs. Jones spend time and money she does not have to hold a garage sale, dispose of her leaves or have her chimney relined. Professor Tractenberg's argument went right to the core of the Council explanation of this anemic ordinance. Why does the town council feel so strongly for Mrs. Jones if her hardship concerns removal of a tree, but demands that she go through a rigorous process if she wants to invite her neighbors to pick over her discarded treasures?

It really makes no sense.

And it totally defies logic that there are people in West Orange, who knowing all the facts, would advocate for the diluted tree ordinance that the council would obviously gladly accept. In its absolute application, this ordinance would preserve no trees at all.

Are we really to believe that the Council has heard from legions of Mrs. Jones' asking the Council's intervention to keep the tree ordinance toothless? Hard to believe.

But the Council proffers this moral conundrum as the reason the ordinance has taken 12 months to craft, and now has everyone going back to the drawing boards once again to come up with yet one more ordinance, one more solution.

A solution indicates that there is a problem. Sorry, Township Council. There really is no problem here except for what ever tacit agreement you made with the developers and/or with the Mayor to make certain that nothing and no one gets in the way of progress.

Please don't take your constituents for a bunch of fools. You have made yourselves as transparent as Casper, and we are seeing right through you.