You know the tall evergreen tree at the NW corner of the Main Street Exxon station, near Liberty Drug, in the Historic District?*
c. July 2023
That healthy Exxon evergreen tree is gone, chopped down a few days ago!
October 11, 2023
Exactly how that happened is a mystery.
Most trees near our streets are deemed Borough trees, under the protection of the Shade Tree Commission.
The Borough Code forbids chopping down even private trees without a good reason – and a permit – if the trunk exceeds 6” in diameter.
Chopping down trees in the Historic District is specifically discouraged by Historic Preservation Guidelines (p.39) providing that:
- “A conscious effort shall be made to preserve all worthwhile trees which exist on a site…”
- “Stripping trees from a lot… shall not be permitted unless it can be shown that grading or construction requirements necessitate removal of trees…”
- “Evergreens are prized for their ability to provide winter greenery to the streetscape.”
Despite all that protection, that Exxon evergreen tree vanished on or about 10/10/23.
So what happened to the Exxon evergreen? Here’s what we know:
- That tree was on the Exxon property (185 Main Street, block 122/lot 2) next to the sidewalk in the Historic District for many years before the new owner bought the Exxon lot on 11/1/21. https://maps.app.goo.gl/xUCBN9p7w5xQSPCg6?g_st=ic https://njparcels.com/property/1404/122/2
- The new owner of the Exxon lot was, and still is, an arm of a big business that operates some 70 gas stations and convenience stores across New Jersey and beyond. https://www.zoominfo.com/c/waseem-petroleum/348833162
- For whatever reason, the founder and owner of that big enterprise wanted that particular evergreen tree gone.
- On or about 5/8/23, the founder filed an application (linked above) for a permit to chop down that tree, which he described as “8” DBH”.
- His use of that technical term, “8” DBH,” meaning the diameter of the trunk was 8” at “breast height” (4.5’), suggests familiarity with tree measuring techniques, tree permit rules, or both. https://ecode360.com/33840218#33840218 https://ecode360.com/33846330
- That 5/8/23 tree removal application was not decided because the trees were not marked, according to the DPW.
- However, the new Exxon owner also designated that evergreen for removal in his pending application for variances necessary to replace the Exxon garage with a convenience store. (See p. 193 of the site plan in the 9/27/23 Zoning Board agenda package linked here: https://chathamborough.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=1)
- Zoning Board approval or disapproval of those variances will depend in large part on the likely effect of that project on the general welfare, including preserving the Historic District, which is among the key purposes listed in state zoning law https://law.justia.com/codes/new-jersey/2022/title-40/section-40-55d-2/, the Borough Code, https://ecode360.com/6792663#6792663, and our Master Plan https://chathamborough.org/government/documents/redevelopment-projects-documents/post-office-plaza-redevelopment-documents/master-plan-1/1356-2016-master-plan-reexamination-and-update-report-adopted-11-16-2016/file
- The Design Guidelines for the Historic District (quoted above, near the top of this post) specifically protect evergreen trees.
- The proposed fate of that evergreen was among the factors that dissuaded the the Historic Preservation Commission from approving the design the new owner of the new Exxon presented to the Historic Preservation Commission at its 9/19/2023 meeting. https://chathamchoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/HPC-Recommendation-Report_185-Main_2023-0921.pdf
- Instead of waiting to resolve that issue at the next HPC meeting (set for 10/17/23) or at the Zoning Board hearing (then set for 10/25/23),** the new Exxon owner simply authorized next door neighbor Liberty Drug (195 Main Street, block 122/lot 1) to chop down the evergreen, according to DPW and the man behind the counter at Liberty.
- On or about October 10, that evergreen tree vanished, stump and all, leaving no way to determine if the diameter of the trunk did in fact exceed 6” as the new Exxon owner had claimed on 5/8/23 and, as such, required a permit.
- An official claimed the diameter of the trunk was less than 6” but so far has not provided any evidence.
- Whether or not the new owner technically enjoyed the right to fell that healthy tree without a permit, by authorizing an intermediary (Liberty) to do the job before the Zoning Board could even hear his case, in effect the new Exxon owner sidestepped meaningful review of a critical aspect of his variance application.
- At the October 17 meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission, and without mentioning the disappearance of the evergreen tree, a lawyer for the new Exxon owner presented a new store design intended to address many of the other concerns raised at the previous HPC meeting, but he was unable to answer several important questions, including some about that missing tree.
- The lawyer agreed to return to the Historic Preservation Commission on November 21, along with an expert who can answer the outstanding questions. ***
- More important than the loss of one tree is the principle at stake.
Will the Historic Preservation Commission and Zoning Board properly address the new owner’s flagrant flouting of the normal procedures for reviewing variance applications, or will they let it pass, in effect condoning similar behavior in the future?
*The author has elected to abstain from participating in or voting on this matter in her capacity as an alternate member of the Commission.
** The new Exxon owner postponed the Zoning Board hearing on his variance application to the November 15 meeting of the Zoning Board, but as of October 25, it appears the application won’t be heard until the December 20 Zoning Board meeting because the next HPC meeting isn’t until November 21. https://chathamborough.org/resident/calendar/zoning-board-2-1698276600
*** See meeting video, starting approx. minute 58:50. https://vimeo.com/875962789Read more: Gone!