Three Trees Along East Webster

A question sent to Roselle Park News in April of last year by a reader resulted in a 10-month investigation that has yet to be answered: Why were trees that look like they’re on private property cut down by the DPW?

At the end of March last year, starting around March 29th, the Roselle Park Department of Public Works (DPW) started to cut down three trees on East Webster Avenue. Even though their physical location was on Webster, they are on the property for 501 Walnut Street, which is around the corner.

The trees themselves were not on the grass between the curb and the sidewalk slab, which is where borough trees are usually found. They were on what looked like private property. It is the distance and why the DPW cut them down that is important. According to sheet 9 of Roselle Park’s tax map, the right-of-way on East Webster is 60 feet. Right-of-way might be on private property but it is land that is used for right of passage for public use, easement, or access. On May 24th, an R.O.W. Tree Report was delivered to the newspaper in response to an OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request. In that report, the width of East Webster by Walnut was measured at 32′ 6″. This was confirmed independently with on-site measurements taken before – and after – the report was received. Half of that is it 16′ 3″. Doing basic math, half the right-of-way is 30′. Subtracting half the roadway leaves 13′ 9″ of right-of-way.

To establish the three trees in perspective, they were one after another parallel to East Webster with the westernmost tree – the one closest to Walnut Street – having exposed roots close to the sidewalk slab. The middle tree was about 15 feet from the westernmost tree and furthest back from the sidewalk. The easternmost tree was around 20 feet from the middle one.

In the May 24th tree report, there is a section that reads “For Tree to be a Roselle Park Tree[,] the Right of Way (R.O.W.) must end at least 50% into the thickness of the tree in Question” – and this is where things get fuzzy.

Photographs provided by the DPW show close-ups of the roots and branches of two of the trees.

There were no photographs that showed measurements from the DPW of the trees in relation to the right-of-way. Having become involved after the trees started being taken down, the newspaper had no way of determining firsthand with precision if at least 50% of all three trees were more than 13′ 9″ into the right-of-way. But taking measurements in the same manner of that of the street, the center of the remaining footprint of the westernmost tree was around 15′ 1″. The middle tree’s center footprint was approximately 14′ 5″. The easternmost tree’s footprint had a measurement of about 14′ 2″. All measured centers were further than 13′ 9″. There is no way to compare what was measured by the DPW due to a lack of documented measurements from the department.

But, even if all trees were in the right-of-way, did they all need to be taken down?

At this point, it should be noted that the one person who could answer these questions has decided not to address them. When Mr. Pasquali was asked about the three trees on February 1st at a municipal meeting – before the closed session matter that involved his superintendent’s contract was decided (link) – his response was, “I’m not interested in discussing it.”

The DPW Superintendent’s three-year contract was up for renewal and is now set to expire tomorrow after the time period of the next contract could not be agreed upon by Mr. Pasquali and the governing body. Council was proposing a six-month renewal with extensions and the superintendent wanted a full three-year contract.

He was contacted since then and replied, “No comment.”

Then there is a $6,000 Community Forestry Management Plan that was commissioned by the 2014 governing body four years ago; there was a 50% matching grant for the plan which had the borough paying $3,000. That plan included a “Windshield Tree Survey of all borough right-of-way streets with extensive research and recommendations”. In that survey, the three trees of 501 Walnut Street on West Webster Avenue were not included as being borough property. There is a notation of 501 Walnut Street under the “Ash Tree Locations” sheet, but that is a tree actually on Walnut Street. There are trees on East Webster Avenue referred to in the “Pin Oak Locations” sheet as ‘(17) Pin Oaks’ between Spruce and Chestnut Streets. Walnut falls between those two streets but there is no detail as to the specific location, and even those trees are listed as only needing a Class II Pruning, not removal.

Download Roselle Park 2015 Community Forestry Management Plan

Download Roselle Park 2014 Windshield Tree Survey

As for the reason for the removal of the trees, that depends on which of the two (2) reports that were provided to the newspaper are referenced. On May 24th, 2017, an R.O.W. Report was handed over by the DPW in response to an OPRA request. That report has no signature, no responsible party, no details or accompanying documentation on measurements of each tree, and no information on the reason for removal. There is a typographical error which has half of the street width as 13′ 6″ instead of 16′ 3″:

Download May 24, 2017 Tree Inspection Form for 501 Walnut Street

It is not known who performed the inspection, took measurements, and approved the removal but it is presumed that it was Mr. Pasquali. Although there is a DPW employee who is a licensed tree expert, he is neither cited nor are his signature or notes part of the May 24th report.

An OPRA request was submitted in May of last year for tree reports performed by that DPW employee.  There were eight (8) Tree Inspection Forms that were certified and signed by the licensed tree expert DPW employee between January and April of 2017, but none of them were for 501 Walnut Street.

Download Certified & Signed Tree Inspection Forms

In December of last year, yet another OPRA request was submitted asking for R.O.W. Tree Reports for the months of May through October. In response, the DPW provided 31 reports which included a newly created R.O.W. Tree Report for 501 Walnut Street which includes more details than the original May 24th version.

Download December 4, 2017 Tree Inspection Form for 501 Walnut Street

A side-by-side comparison of both forms is available below (click to enlarge view):

Not only does this report differ from its predecessor but it is the only R.O.W. Tree Report in the 62 received in response to OPRA requests that had such detail.

Download June 12, 2017 batch of R.O.W. Tree Inspection Forms

Download December 4, 2017 batch of R.O.W. Tree Inspection Forms

Who authorized the alteration of that one specific report and why was it created is not known.

Add to all of this a timeline of when the house was purchased, and more questions arise. According to property records, the house was purchased on January 9, 2017, by Nicola Cristofaro, the owner of Costa’s Restaurant. In one OPRA submittal, documentation was asked that showed a request to have the trees inspected and taken down. The response from Mr. Pasquali on November 21st, 2017, was “There was no application. It was a verbal request to look at the trees.”

From the purchase of the house to the start of tree removal was 79 days.

In the second December R.O.W. Tree Report, there is an entirely new section added which describes that there were receipts shown by the homeowner where a plumber did unspecified work on the property, but copies of those receipts did not accompany the report. There is no mention of any inspection that was conducted by the DPW of the sewer line to confirm or refute the validity of the homeowner’s suspicion. It is not known if any insurance carrier was contacted by the homeowner or the municipality to determine how much responsibility of the issue was the property owner’s and how much of it belonged to the municipality. Also, if there was an obstruction, there was no indication of how it was ascertained that all three trees caused a severe enough problem to merit their removal or if the lines were private or public property. The threes were parallel to the roadway and sewer lines usually run perpendicular to the street.

Instead, in this instance, a verbal request was received and in just under eight weeks – 55 days – the DPW began to cut down three (3) trees that no one can prove were on municipal property. If there is any evidence, it has not been provided through OPRA channels which requested accompanying material to the records requested.

In the end, there appears to be large gaps in reporting how, why, when, and on whose evaluation trees are removed in the borough. A possible solution would be to have better-detailed reports with accompanying documentation, signatures, references, measurements, and reviewable material.

In evidence of this, the final OPRA request responded to in December regarding the trees at 501 Walnut Street had an additional response added by Mr. Pasquali. It appears to admit – at the very least – a serious flaw in the protocol to determine if trees are on borough property or within a right-of-way. The DPW Superintendent wrote, “We are now including the actual measurements to be more accurate.”

Another possible solution would be to have better oversight, such as a tree commission that would review all proposed removals independently. Currently, these decisions are left up to one person, the DPW Superintendent.

This incident has left a lot of questions unanswered. Were the trees on private property? Did all three trees need to be removed? Who was qualified to make that determination? Did the DPW Superintendent make this decision on his own or was it at the behest of someone in the municipality?

Right now, the only person who can answer these and other important questions has one day left on his employment contract and he is ‘not interested in addressing it.’

The only people who can compel an answer from the department are the members of the governing body.

They also are the ones who can establish corrective actions – which, hopefully, includes an internal review – to avoid the possibility of similar issues in the future.