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Tree Cutting Concerns Raised in Bernardsville Resident's Letter

Resident suggest citizens contact Somerset Hills school board and Bernardsville Council members regarding proposal.

Editor's note: The following letter was submitted with comments by a resident of Old Colony Road in Bernardsville regarding plans to construct additional field space on a lower field below the existing turf field at Bernards High School. The Bernardsville Council is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. on Monday night. The meeting's agenda includes a closed-session discussion on contract negotiations regarding a use agreement for the proposed Chestnut Field behind the a separate proposal.

To the editor,

Did you know that within the next week or two, upon final permitting, a controversial cut and fill operation will begin at Bernards High School?

The plan, made public and approved all within just the past three weeks by our Board of Education (2/5/13) and our Borough Council (2/14/13) calls for cutting down several hundred trees (unspecified and unlimited in number; some over 200 years old) from the forested wetlands behind the lower athletic field at Bernards High School. Initially, the project was described as minimally invasive, with fewer than ten trees involved in the cutting. Obviously now, this is not the case.

The 2012 NJDEP map shows that these woods are historically defined as wetlands. The affected stakeholders are urging the Board to request a letter of interpretation from the DEP.

The project is proceeding at a breakneck speed to accommodate the 12,000 cubic yards of free fill from the new Chase Bank property on Route 202. The excavated soil will be combined with the 6,000 cubic yards of dirt located now in a mound at the eastern end of the BHS lower athletic field. The field will be extended into the woods, with a “disturbance area” still undefined as of the 2/20 Board of Education meeting.

Timeline of events:

  • On 1/31/13, an article in The Bernardsville News referenced a 2/5 joint meeting of the Board of Education and the Borough Council to discuss athletic fields and safety concerns at the Bedwell and Bernardsville Middle School. There was no mention made about extending the lower high school field and/or cutting down hundreds of trees.
  • On 2/5/13, it was unanimously agreed by the Board of Education to accept the free fill, which would enable the district to improve the existing play areas and lay the ground work for possible future field expansion at the high school. Additionally, in order to expedite the delivery of the fill, the school district sought a tree-removal waiver from the town’s tree removal and protection ordinance.
  • On 2/12/13, one week after the vote was taken, adjacent property owners to the woods in question learned about the “done deal,” through the grapevine. With the removal of hundreds of trees and stumps from the forested woodland, the property owners’ concerns include but are not limited to: significant flooding and drainage issues to their properties (downstream of the area in question), reduced absorption and increased runoff rates, ponding of water, soil erosion, loss of shade, and significant decline in property values.
  • On 2/14/13, the Borough Council met to review the request for a waiver. The Board of Education engineer explained that the plan called for clearing 2 ½ acres of trees, up to the green clearing limit line on the drawings. When asked why an area that large needed to be cleared for the “initial” field expansion, he responded that there were economies of scale in a total clearing for the future expansion plans of the lower high school fields. The Council approved the waiver, allowing the Board to remove an unspecified and unlimited numbers of trees from the woods, “saving as many trees as possible.”
  • On 2/20/13, stakeholders in the community, blindsided and confused about the “done deal,” attended the Board of Education meeting. Attendees included members of the community, as well as members of The Great Swamp Watershed Association, National Audubon Society, and Shade Tree and Environmental Commissions. These concerned individuals intended to raise concerns, ask questions and understand the significant ramifications of the Board’s actions on the environment, Penn’s Brook, Great Swamp, Passaic River and downstream neighbors of the high school. Unfortunately, the Board of Education engineer was not present; so many important questions remained unanswered. Additionally, a newly revised plan was presented, with details to follow at a later date. Members of the community urged the Board to pause and perform their due diligence. Attendees asked the Board to notify all stakeholders of a future meeting in order to review drawing details, have their questions answered, provide input, all before the cut and fill operation begins. The Board did not commit to a timeframe.
  • Historical Note: On 2/23/12, one year ago, a group of stakeholders met with the Facilities and Operation Committee (F&O) of the Board of Education, as a first step, to discuss their grave concerns regarding serious drainage and flooding issues on their properties and the adjacent woods, as well as drainage plans for the lower high school field. Those present were told by F&O that the Board would keep them abreast of developments in a proactive and transparent manner. This commitment has not been met.  (Note: These stakeholders were not involved in the lawsuit against the Board of Education that occurred several years ago.)

Conclusion:

I believe that our present Board of Education, comprised of hard-working volunteers, has tried to work diligently and thoughtfully in examining the many issues facing our district. But this hasty and non-transparent process is very uncharacteristic of a Board of this caliber. Based on field usage studies, there would appear to be a need for more athletic fields in Bernardsville. In fact, discussions are underway to make that happen, soliciting input from members of our community. (See the last four issues of The Bernardsville News)

It is not too late! This week, before the chainsaws start buzzing and the trucks begin to roll down Route 202, call Board of Education and Borough Council representatives on this issue. I have been a proud member of this community since 1969.  I, like you, were devastated by the loss of thousands of trees during Hurricane Sandy, our town’s worst natural disaster. After this tragedy, why are we going to cut down hundreds of more trees? Surely, there is a more responsible way to accomplish the desired goal, while minimizing impact to our environment and our citizens.

Jeanne Merten DePodwin

Bernardsville, NJ

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