This is the first in a two-part series on Jersey City’s trees
In the fall of 2018, 84 mature trees along a public walkway in Jersey City’s Society Hill neighborhood were cut down ending a controversy that had galvanized local residents for ten years. Fourteen hundred signatures had been collected from neighbors to save the trees. Mayor Fulop himself had for many years publicly opposed the clear-cutting. Yet by Fall 2018 the trees were gone, decimated after a three-person board that controlled the trees’ fate voted to award a $1.7 million contract for their removal rather than opt for a far less expensive, less environmentally destructive alternative. City officials ignored the advice of their own experts and those brought in by neighborhood activists. In the end, the city blessed the destruction of a precious natural resource.
Jersey City Times has spent months looking into the sequence of events leading up to the trees’ removal. The decision fits into a history of forestry management that has seen Jersey City’s tree canopy shrink to worrisome lows over the past fifteen years. Serious questions remain as to how this could have happened.
The Back Story
Society Hill consists of three developments totaling 1,550 homes. The community was built over a span of years starting in 1993. Bordered by Newark Bay to the west, the homes occupy land on which Roosevelt Stadium once stood. Its single-family residences have lawns and access to private swimming pools, tennis courts clubhouses, children’s play areas, and more. The development is enclosed by security gates and feels worlds away from the rest of Jersey City.
A resident named “Fresco” on JC List said it best:
Society Hill is “a safe community, with a lot of JCPD [Jersey City Police Department] as residents. If you are looking for a change of pace from city living and a little more space or a more suburban style experience but still being close enough to the city, along with some great amenities (pool, promenade, etc.), I would recommend it…”
Adding to Society Hill’s feeling of spaciousness is a tree-lined walkway that extends along its entire bay-front perimeter. Although it is public property owned by Jersey City, responsibility for maintaining the landscaping and insurance along the promenade belongs to the association representing the three communities, the Droyer’s Point Walkway Association (or DPWA), controlled by three board members.
The walkway was built in stages starting in 1993. By the time it was completed, 84 young London Plane trees had been planted. Thought to be a cross between American Sycamores and Oriental Planes, London Plane trees are well suited to an urban environment. They withstand warm summer temperatures, provide lots of shade, resist breaking, and tolerate pollution well. And they are among the most effective trees at sequestering CO2. The London Plane tree does however, have its detractors. If not properly maintained, their powerful roots can damage nearby infrastructure. They also exacerbate hay fever in some people. Nevertheless, the species is extremely popular. It is found in large numbers throughout Europe, Australia, North America, and South America. The tree is so endemic to cities that the New York City Parks Department uses the London Plane’s leaf as its logo.
A Rush to Clear Cut
By 2009 the trees in Society Hill had grown to the point where they formed a shady canopy over the walkway below. Their foliage hid the unsightly power plant across the water in Kearny. Their spotted camouflage trunks had grown thick and erect with gnarly branches spreading out into wide, leafy crowns.
But a problem had appeared: In places, roots from the trees had begun to push the bricks and concrete upward creating a trip hazard. Concerned about safety and liability, the DPWA retained an engineering, architectural and energy consulting firm, Falcon Engineering, to advise it on the best solution. In no time, Falcon arrived at a solution. They said cut every tree down. Thus began a ten-year battle between a condo board strangely dedicated to maximizing environmental destruction and cost and a group of activists committed to saving the community’s stately and protective trees.
Society Hill resident Denise Bailey was particularly surprised by Falcon’s recommendation.
“When I heard the DPWA had been told there was no way to fix the walkway other than to remove every single one of the trees along it, I was shocked and couldn’t understand why they would take such extreme measures to handle a situation that many cities handle without cutting down trees unnecessarily,” she said. “’These trees are not only beautiful, they provide so many benefits that would be lost when only a few trees appear to have minor problems,’” Bailey recalls thinking at the time. “If the DPWA board can’t find a way to save them, maybe I can.”
The benefits of preserving mature trees are well established. A 2017 study by a professor with the University of Hamburg, Germany, found that almost 70% of all the carbon stored in trees is accumulated in the last half of their lives. Thus, mature trees are better at fighting climate change than young trees. Mature trees also offer comparatively more protection from the elements, saving energy and money throughout the year. Older trees filter more pollutants and catch more stormwater than do younger trees, resulting in cleaner air, less flooding, and lower costs for municipalities. And mature trees are better for wildlife. They offer more food and shelter, more places for resting and nesting.
Immediately after the DPWA announced its decision to remove all of the trees in the spring of 2009, Bailey, a resident since 2002, enlisted her neighbor Vern Carlson and a few of the area’s other residents to look into solutions that would save them. She also contacted her councilman, Michael Sottolano, and the city’s director of Public Works, Rodney Hadley.
Both Sottolano and Hadley endorsed Bailey’s plan to look into alternatives that would save the trees. Hadley, who happened to be a certified arborist himself, took it one step further. He told Bailey that if the board replaced the walkway’s existing concrete with rubber sidewalks, Public Works would not only prune all the trees itself (to accommodate the new sidewalk), but the city would pick up the tab and even trim them every six to ten years thereafter so as to properly maintain them.
But when Bailey tried to present this offer to the DPWA board, her overtures were ignored. For four months the DPWA didn’t acknowledge Bailey’s emails let alone respond to them. Finally, in the fall the board acquiesced, recognizing it could not decide the matter by fiat after all. In October 2009 “Friends of the Walkway” (FOTW) was formed.
Bailey and her co-founder Vern Carlson got right to work. By the following spring they were ready to present their findings to the board. The group had hired Paul Jordan, a New Jersey certified tree expert and International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist — and a masonry company called Salmeron — to assess the walkway damage and examine the 84 trees. The consultants considered a combination of pruning plans and paving materials. Good news came within weeks. Jordan and Salmeron concluded the walkway could indeed be repaired while saving the vast majority of the trees. To make matters even better, their highest cost estimate of $107,000 was far below those of the DPWA. And their lowest quote of $55,000 not only came in below the DPWA’s budget but would not have led to any increase in each homeowner’s assessment.
Bailey recalls her emotions:
“It felt great that I and a group of other concerned volunteer residents were able to find an affordable solution that would address the needed walkway repairs and preserve the majority of the mature trees that provide incredible ecological and environmental benefits and amazing aesthetic beauty on this public walkway that services all Jersey City residents.”
But in the spring of 2010 when the FOTW presented their findings to the DPWA, the board was inexplicably unmoved.
The City Weighs In
Frustrated, Bailey reached out to Rodney Hadley again. This time, Hadley upped the ante and, writing in August 2010, took his concerns to the DPWA directly.
“Based on the enhanced review of this office, and certified arborist assessment, the scope of the work specifically proposed by the Friends of the Walkway …. will effectively remediate the walkway … so the city will NOT permit any trees to be removed!” Hadley wrote. “The Jersey City Parks Department commends Friends of the Walkway for investing time in looking at options other than removal … Mayor Healy and the city of Jersey City along with Councilman Sottolano believe it is better that the walkway be repaired without removing these healthy, mature trees.”
Bailey was thrilled to have all of this official public support. She and Carlson had already collected 645 signatures urging the DPWA to save the trees. She now wanted to present the petition and all her findings to the community at large, something the DPWA had promised her she could do but had not made good on. Again, Bailey got radio silence for several months. Only when she confronted the DPWA with the development’s by-laws did the DPWA give her a date for a “special” meeting.
On September 7, the meeting took place. Bailey had reason to be optimistic. The forum would include presentations with cost quotes from both sides. Residents would get all the information they would need to determine their own economic and environmental fate. Finally, it seemed the process was becoming transparent.
The meeting appeared to be a success. For the first time, the board (which then consisted of Nathan Minnich, Neil Scott, and Rubina Vohra) agreed to let the entire community vote on the trees; a second arborist (Silva Guard) agreed with Paul Jordan that the trees could be saved; and the board agreed that the ballot would not even include the option to remove all the trees.
But looks were deceiving. The community-wide vote slated for later that fall was never held because the two sides could not agree on the language or format of the ballot. And just days after the meeting, Falcon weighed in again in favor of complete demolition.
“In our opinion, the existing trees will continue to cause damage to the existing walkway unless they are removed…Based on our analysis, the total cost to maintain the walkway and existing trees over a long period of time would be greater than the one time cost to remove the trees today and repair the walkway,” the company wrote.
The ensuing years saw the DPWA double down on its mission to fell the trees. When the trip hazards were first detected, the board blamed the species of tree itself for the damage, saying London Planes were inappropriate for a waterfront promenade and that, in addition, the trees’ roots would pierce the cap separating the clean topsoil from contaminants underneath. Bailey and FOTW enlisted experts who debunked both justifications.
In 2011 Bailey also started gathering what would become a whole network of nonprofit and government support. Deb Italiano, co-founder of Sustainable Jersey City, shared SJC’s vast network of environmental experts and her knowledge of the way city government works. The two groups would form a partnership that would last for years.
Specialists from the New Jersey Tree Foundation also consulted for the FOTW. After examining the trees and confirming that they could be saved, they offered the DPWA both technical advice and logistical support. Both invitations went unaccepted, however.
In May 2011 another Jersey City department weighed in on FOTW’s side. Bob Cotter, director of Jersey City’s Division of Planning endorsed FOTW’s recommendations, adding the issue was urgent. “We believe the walkway repairs need to be implemented immediately,” he said.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast. Still standing, the walkway’s 84 trees provided a protective barrier known as a “shelterbelt” that spared the valuable waterfront homes from severe damage.
In 2013, the FOTW secured further expert support for its position. New Jersey Certified Tree Expert John Linson examined the trees and made two pronouncements that would bolster FOTW’s case. “Fortunately,” he said, “London Plane is a very hardy tree and will withstand the moderate root shaving necessary to correct the uplifted walkway.” Only four trees in his view needed removing.
Bailey presented these findings to the DPWA, but they remained set on their own plan.
The following year, 2014, the Jersey City Environmental Commission became the third city body to endorse saving the trees. Noting its focus on “green infrastructure to reduce stormwater discharge and protect our shorelines,” Vice Chair Gerald F. Nicholls said, “We recommend that the DPWA implement alternatives to tree removal.”
Still, the DPWA didn’t budge.
Finally, in 2016 two Jersey City officials teamed up to express their concern. It is their partnership that began to sway the DPWA.
Writing on joint letterhead to the board, Mark Redfield (who had become the head of Public Works), and Bob Cotter (still head of Planning), said:
“While this walkway is in need of immediate repair, the Jersey City Department of Public Works, Park Maintenance Division; the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce, Division of City Planning; and the Jersey City Environmental Commission are all in concurrence that the 84 mature trees that provide a green buffer and tree canopy along the walkway should not be removed.”
But what Redfield and Cotter didn’t know — or chose not to say — was equally important. The city itself had the right to take over the project. Ironically, this right was codified by DPWA’s own bylaws. What is more, this right extended even further, allowing the city to repair the walkway and make the homeowners pay for it, according to state law. For reasons that are unclear, the city never invoked this right.
Matters finally came to a head in late 2017. By this time, the walkway had become so compromised that the DPWA had decided to close most of it rather than risk an accident. And in an attempt to heed Redfield and Cotter, the board had authorized a subcontractor of Falcon, The Shauger Group, to begin limited repairs including shaving the trees’ roots.
Almost immediately, however, Shauger halted its work. They claimed that conditions they found were not what they’d expected, and they now feared that even a simple pruning would render the trees unstable. For advice they turned to Falcon, who brought in its own certified arborist, Paul Cowie. Cowie visited the walkway in October and agreed with Shauger: Saving the trees would indeed be risky. All the trees would have to go.
Cowie presented his assessment to the DPWA at a meeting in November. Herman Shauger, an executive with the company, told the board that he couldn’t accept the liability of preserving the trees when Cowie was advising against it.
Bailey was now fit to be tied. Over the years, she had amassed numerous opinions from arborists who were confident that most of the trees could be saved. There was Paul Jordan and Salmeron. There were experts from the New Jersey Tree Foundation. There was Rodney Hadley from the Department of Public Works, who had assured her that the “beautiful and mature trees” could and should be preserved. There was John Linson, who told her the trees could “withstand the moderate root shaving necessary to correct the uplifted walkway.” Moreover, officials including Mayor Healy and Bob Cotter (and even State Senator Sandra Cunningham) had weighed in against felling the trees. So, too, had the Jersey City Environmental Commission. And then there were the signatures of over a thousand residents.
But those expert opinions, those official admonitions, and those residents’ pleas had seemingly fallen on deaf ears. With her back against the wall, and with the DPWA having thrown down the gauntlet, Bailey suggested the board hire an independent arborist — one unaffiliated with the contractors who stood to gain from an expanded job — to render an updated assessment.
But board members Richard Reinemann, Michelle Kateman, and Jennifer Campbel told her no, Cowie’s opinion was enough. Brushing Bailey’s pleas aside, the three-member body voted unanimously to destroy 80 of the 84 trees. It further approved an additional $275,000 in fees for Shauger.
With nowhere else to go, Bailey appealed to Mayor Fulop, who agreed to help. She took Mayor Fulop’s support to the DPWA.
“Mayor Fulop has asked me to let you know that there will be significant and severe fines/penalties incurred if trees are removed. He has also asked to be cc:ed on this correspondence,” Bailey wrote.
The work came to a halt. The trees got a reprieve while the city reviewed Shauger’s plans. But by February 2018, with its patience running out and most of the walkway having been closed for months due to its dangerous condition, the DPWA gave Fulop an ultimatum: Give us a decision by a drop-dead date or we will proceed regardless.
That the trees were the cause of the walkway’s disrepair isn’t obvious from photos taken in 2018. Weeds can be seen growing in the cracks between bricks. Some of the bricks are loose and out of place. Grey concrete bands across the path have deteriorated. But the path is relatively flat with minimal buckling or undulation.
The City Folds
In April, the DPWA and Falcon Engineering met with city officials including Director of Public Works Pat Stamato, Director of Architecture Brian Weller, Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley, and Assistant Corporation Counsel John McDonough. The officials gave the DPWA permission to move ahead with the clear cutting. Bailey hadn’t been invited and was unaware that the meeting had even taken place.
Meantime, Bailey had emailed Ridley, who had just become involved. She recounted the full history of the case and told the councilwoman she had added 600 more signatures to her “pro-tree” petition.
Typical of the signatories was “Irena R.” “Trees are precious as a resource for the city, for the protection and shade that they provide, and for adding beauty to our city surroundings. Replacement is insufficient– it will take decades for any new trees to grow to compare to those we have now. All possible efforts should be made to maintain and support these important city resources,” the resident wrote.
When Bailey learned of the group’s secret meeting, she again appealed to Mayor Fulop. Initially, Fulop demurred. He referred her to Ridley, whom he characterized as the official “closest to the issue.” But eventually he agreed to intercede again on FOTW’s behalf.
The trees’ fate got even rosier a month later. In early May representatives from the city met with Falcon and Cowie at the walkway. While all parties agreed that a fraction of the trees needed replacing, the city determined the lion’s share could be saved. More important, according to DPWA’s then-lawyer, the city once again offered to “assume responsibility for tree removal decisions” and to “conduct any necessary work — whether removing and replacing trees, shaving roots or otherwise” itself.
Bailey had not been invited to this meeting either but knew it had taken place. So, the very next day she emailed Ridley to find out what had happened. Ridley told her the matter was in McDonough’s hands and that she’d notify her “once an official report is available for the public.” Bailey then proceeded to email McDonough. He told her the city had “flagged approximately 15 trees for removal.” He said not one word about the city’s momentous offer to take over responsibility for the walkway itself.
Within a month it appears this offer had been revoked.
On June 29 the DPWA emailed its residents implying that the onus to repair the walkway was once again upon them. It reported the city was “working to resolve DPWA’s dilemma of being told to go against its expert’s opinion and to follow the recommendations of non-experts.” DPWA was now casting itself as a victim. Characterizing FOTW as “hobbyists,” it was also casting aspersions on Bailey and her supporters. It was as if the myriad expert opinions FOTW had amassed against cutting down the trees had never been rendered.
Also during the spring of 2018 the DPWA had been grappling with another problem: difficulty getting its walkway liability insurance renewed. Its insurance was due to expire in mid-July, and for over six months no company had been willing to write another one. If the board failed to get new coverage, the part of the walkway that had been closed would remain off limits, and the remaining part that was still open would have to be shut.
Bailey again asked Mayor Fulop to assure that the city would hold firm and spare the trees. But this time he told her, “We are deferring to the councilwoman on this. She is the best resource and extremely diligent.” The best he could do was attend an “open forum” where he could hear from the residents directly what they had to say.
That forum took place on July 25. Bailey recalls her neighbors were overwhelmingly against the clear cutting. But rather than take a position one way or the other, Fulop suggested the DPWA hold yet another community meeting the following week — and then decide itself.
Four more weeks elapsed. No follow-up meeting was called. Desperate, Bailey once again wrote to the mayor. “Residents have heard that the DPWA won’t meet with residents until they get permission from the city to remove all 84 trees,” she emailed. Six minutes later the mayor referred Bailey to Ridley. Six hours after that Ridley replied. “While the mayor and the city have made suggestions to the board to engage the residents more, it is up to the board to operate by their own bylaws/rules,” she told her. “It is unfortunate to hear that you are not receiving the response level you would appreciate.”
Ridley wrote this message on August 28, 2018. On September 1, unbeknownst to Bailey at the time, DPW Director Pat Stamato issued a permit authorizing the clear-cutting of 80 of the 84 trees.
Bailey did not learn of this news for nearly a month. Like all Society Hill residents, she heard about it from Ridley, who wrote to all the residents claiming the city had “come to a solution that will restore the beautiful walkway” in consultation with the DPWA, FOTW and “concerned residents.” What she didn’t say was that Bailey and FOTW had been ignored along with their experts and lower-cost solutions for saving the trees. Ridley announced that “all existing trees” would be removed and replaced with “an appropriate species” that wouldn’t “uproot the walkway causing damage.”
Although Bailey was extremely disappointed by the news, she still hoped something could be done. Alison Cucco, chair of the Jersey City Environmental Commission, fired off a letter to the DPWA. “We are extremely alarmed by a plan to remove healthy trees from our city,” she said. “Since no reason for removing the trees has been communicated at this time, we request an explanation from the DPWA regarding this plan prior to tree removal.”
If Cucco’s letter had any impact on the DPWA, it was never disclosed. By November, the trees were all cut down and one by one fed into a giant wood-chipper. As she watched the destruction, Bailey felt “a great deal of loss and sadness knowing that the walkway would never be the same in my lifetime.”
In the end, residents of Society Hill shelled out $1.7 million to clear cut the trees and reset some bricks. They spent nearly $2 million more than the carefully researched solutions Bailey and FOTW had proposed eight years earlier. Eighty full grown London Plane trees that provided beauty, cost savings, and environmental benefits to humans and wildlife alike were now gone.
An Unaccountable Board
Unfortunately, the residents of Jersey City may never know why a seemingly easy decision to save valuable natural resources — and over a million dollars for local homeowners — was bypassed for a lengthy and expensive fight that ended in significant deforestation. Just eight years earlier a highly reputable company had offered to trim the trees and repair the walkway for less than $110,000. In the end, the tab came to $1.7 million.
From the beginning, it’s clear that the DPWA and its vendor, Falcon, were hellbent on felling all the trees. This desire never diminished despite numerous opinions from independent arborists and city officials that the trees could be saved.
As evidenced by the final $1.7 million cost, Falcon stood to gain through a wholesale clear cutting of the landscape. It remains unclear why the DPWA didn’t credit the multiple arborists who had stated (most of them repeatedly) that clear cutting was unnecessary. What if anything the DPWA stood to gain by unnecessarily increasing the scope of Falcon’s (and Shauger’s) work also remains a mystery.
For insight into the board’s decision, we spoke with Melissa Haley, who joined DPWA’s board in January 2018. She said she didn’t remember what the board’s thinking had been initially. Her vote to remove all the trees was designed to get the walkway’s insurance renewed, she said.
Councilwoman Ridley, with whom we spoke, also cited insurance as a reason for the clear-cutting. However, while both Haley and Ridley may have been led by others to believe this justification, the facts don’t appear to support their thinking.
First, according to documents reviewed by Jersey City Times, the concern that the DPWA wouldn’t be able to get insurance didn’t arise until 2018; yet the DPWA had been advocating for complete removal for ten years. Second, while there appears no question that obtaining insurance became difficult for the DPWA in 2018, DPWA’s attorney was unable or unwilling to provide evidence that any insurer ever conditioned coverage on felling all the trees. We asked to speak with the DPWA’s former insurance agent to resolve this question. This request was denied.
Also unexplained was the air of secrecy surrounding the board’s relationship with Falcon, a relationship that proved highly lucrative for the vendor. Denise Bailey was never granted access to Falcon’s contract despite having asked to see it many times. Jersey City Times also asked to see the agreement and received no response.
There was also a lack of transparency and good faith dealing in the DPWA’s relationship with Friends of the Walkway. Throughout its battle with FOTW, the DPWA broke promises, excluded the group from important meetings with the city, and omitted or misrepresented in its minutes significant events that took place.
Jersey City Times tried on numerous occasions to speak with representatives of the DPWA and its vendors in an effort to learn their side of the story. Arborist Paul Cowie agreed to speak with us on the condition that his client, The Falcon Group, consent. Falcon Executive V.P. David Chesky referred us to the DPWA — and the DPWA referred us to its attorney.
We also left numerous messages for Richard Reinemann and Jeniffer Campbell. These messages went unreturned. Attempts to locate Michelle Kateman, the third board member from late 2017, a pivotal period, were also unsuccessful.
What is clear is that as directors of a nonprofit board, the DPWA had a fiduciary duty to “ensure prudent use of all assets” and “make decisions that are in the best interest of the nonprofit corporation,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits. It is hard to argue that the board complied with that duty. Indeed, DPWA’s actions created at a minimum an appearance of impropriety.
The City’s Failure
Our investigation also revealed serious flaws in Jersey City’s municipal governance: lack of leadership, lack of transparency, selective enforcement of its own ordinances, disregarding the advice of the city’s own professionals, and discounting the wishes of throngs of residents.
New Jersey law allowed the city to step in and fix a public amenity when a private organization tasked with this upkeep failed to do so. As late as Spring 2018, the city told the DPWA that it would avail itself of this right. It would relieve the board of any responsibility for the repair, it would save the trees. Yet it didn’t.
Jersey City Times contacted Mayor Fulop to ask why the city decided to stay on the sidelines. In response, his press secretary, Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione suggested we file an OPRA request. We did not since the Open Public Records Act shields this type of disclosure expressly. Wallace-Scalcione, however, did give us this statement:
“The Walkway Association is legally responsible for the maintenance of the walkway and to obtain insurance, which could not be renewed due to the condition of the walkway caused by the trees, rendering it unusable. After multiple meetings with Society Hill residents were held in an effort to help settle the stalemate and reopen the walkway, the city left the decision to the residents who pay for and use the walkway, and while a select few may not agree with the overwhelming majority’s vote and the certified arborist’s resolution to remove the sickly trees, they cannot dispute the fact that this entire decision-making process was done fairly and equitably with the local elected board and affected residents making the decisions to best suit their needs.”
It is true that the three-person DPWA board voted in favor of cutting down the trees, but this tiny group hardly reflects “the residents who pay for and use the walkway.” These citizens — in vast numbers — asked for Mayor Fulop’s attention precisely because they were at loggerheads with the DPWA board. Mayor Fulop listened for an evening and then disengaged.
It should also be noted that none of the arborists who inspected the trees, not even Paul Cowie, ever reported that they were diseased or “sickly.”
Jersey City Times also requested interviews with former Planning Director Bob Cotter and Former DPW Director Mark Redfield. Mr. Cotter, who was reached by email, explained that he retired in late 2016 and didn’t “know anything about what happened in JC in 2018.” We asked why the city didn’t step in to fix the trees while he was still in office. He never wrote back.
Former DPW Director Mark Redfield retired in 2016 as well. When we reached him, he told us he did not remember the specifics of the Society Hill tree controversy well enough to speak about them. He did offer, however, to comment on other projects that he worked on during his tenure.
The city operated opaquely. Never was Denise Bailey told that in May 2018 the city offered to assume control of the project (which decision it reneged on one month later). Assistant Corporation Counsel McDonough left unanswered many of Bailey’s emailed questions. And repeatedly the city excluded FOTW from meetings it held with the DPWA and its vendors.
Jersey City officials seem to have selectively enforced the city’s own ordinance. It issued the DPWA and Shauger one permit to remove 80 trees; its own law stipulates that separate permits be issued for every tree.
The city also failed to enforce its ordinance concerning payment for removing trees (a far worse transgression). According to both Chapter 321-6B of the Jersey City municipal code and the city’s Forestry Standards, for each of the trees removed in Society Hill, the DPWA was responsible for either planting six new trees or paying $500. The DPWA planted one new tree for each tree Shauger removed. Jersey City Times asked the DPWA and the city for receipts showing the city received the $40,000 that had been required. No answer was received from either party.
The city ignored the advice of its own appointees. Over the course of ten years, two heads of Public Works, the head of Planning, and the head of the Environmental Commission called for the trees to be saved; the city wound up acceding to a three-member condominium board and its vendor.
In the end — and at the direction of Mayor Fulop — the city delegated the decision to a brand new councilwoman, Denise Ridley, who’d never held public office before and who’d had no background in infrastructure or forestry management.
The Jersey City Times spoke with Ridley to ascertain why she’d favored clear cutting the trees. She gave several reasons including installing species that were “proper trees for that walkway.” But Ridley’s priority was enabling the DPWA to renew its insurance so the walkway could be reopened.
“Residents were overwhelmingly upset over the walkway,” she told us. “They said word for word, ‘We need you to choose people over trees.’”
Jersey City Times asked for but never received any evidence, however, that insurance was conditioned on clear cutting the trees.
Throughout our interview Ridley implied that her priority was in making decisions that were based on forestry expertise rather than on lay opinion. Initially she implied that the DPWA alone had this expertise:
“Everything Denise Bailey presented was a matter of opinion. There was no arborist’s report, there was no data to back up what she was saying about shaving down [pruning rather than removing] the trees,” she said.
But Ridley’s justification was faulty for two reasons. First, FOTW had proffered certified arborists over the years. And not one but four. Second, Ridley’s reasoning was internally inconsistent. Cowie had been hired by Falcon, and therefore Cowie had had a conflict of interest. Ridley acknowledged this conflict to us, stating that’s why she’d asked “whatever experts they had in the city” to examine the trees, too. But these city officials to whom Ridley was referring, were attorneys, architects, and public works administrators, not arborists. It thus appears that at least on this one occasion Ridley had been willing to accept the advice of lay people even though she had criticized Bailey (erroneously) for having done the same thing.
Ridley also discounted vast numbers of her own constituents. While the area’s residents were not monolithic in their opinions as to how to fix the walkway, a huge percentage of them — 1,400 people out of 1,550 homes — had petitioned for the trees to be saved. When asked why these homeowners didn’t sway her, Ridley implied that many of the signatories had signed without understanding the issue in full. Perhaps, she suggested, they were just trying to be agreeable.
“Now, if I come to you with a petition and say, ‘hey, we need to save these trees, they don’t need to be cut, can you sign this petition,’ you’re going to sign, and I’m going to sign this petition.’ Nobody wants to cut down trees unnecessarily’.”
She also felt that many of the signatures were old and it was likely some of the signatories had moved away.
Ridley did favor Jersey City Times with a lengthy interview, something no other current or former city official whom we asked — from Fulop to Stamato to Director of Parks and Forestry Ocasio to Redfield to Cotter to McDonough — agreed to do. This mirrors the lonely spot Ridley was placed in by Mayor Fulop in the end. In Ridley’s own words, “I was kind of thrown into this in the middle of something that had been going on for years.”
To his credit, Mayor Fulop repeatedly intervened to halt the clear cutting. However, in the end, by “deferring” to a rookie councilwoman on a matter so controversial and environmentally destructive, he passed the buck. He shrunk from leadership.
Just days before the trees came down, Bailey was philosophical. “The Friends stood and believed in something in order to try and protect against decisions that would sacrifice these beautiful and important trees, and for ten years our environmental protection efforts prevailed,” she wrote. Today she doesn’t regret spending ten years fighting a losing battle. “I still believe that we can’t have change until people put the energy into making change.”
As a member of Jersey City’s Shade Tree Committee, Bailey continues her work advocating for Jersey City’s trees.
Today the walkway bears little resemblance to the shade-covered promenade depicted in photos from 2009. In place of the grand London Plane trees stand a variety of small and spindly honey locusts, callery pears, hackberries, and English oaks. The largest of them top out at 20 feet. For now, they seem out of place, overmatched by the wind that comes off the wide expanse of water. A few have died, and others are missing completely. But the walkway is smooth now, the pavers unmolested by roots.
For a lucky few, the townhouses that line the walkway now have unobstructed views of Newark Bay and the industrial waterfront across the water. There are few people out on a late October afternoon. A jogger passes by, most likely unaware of the battle that was lost over 84 trees and all they came to represent.
To learn more about this story, see Denise Bailey’s post “Lessons Learned” on the Friends of the Walkway website.
To learn about other efforts to preserve Jersey City’s tree canopy, click here.
Ron Leir and Aaron Morrill contributed to this article.