By Jaimie Julia Winters
A Department of Environmental Protection official inspected the Alfonzo F. Bonsal Preserve Thursday, Aug. 9, and concluded the water commission, which cleared 70 trees recently on the property had operated inappropriately without a permit and adversely impacted protected wetlands, according to Friends of Bonsal Preserve officials.
Last weekend’s flooding along the Third River, which runs through Bonsal, was exacerbated by the number of trees the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission (NJDWSC) took down along the water line on July 30 and 31, added officials. Because the commission’s easement hugs the river, many that were removed were along the river line.
“They cut trees that helped with the erosion near the river,” said Jonathan Grupper, Friends of the Bonsal Preserve. “The river rose by roughly three feet. Its banks spread across the 30-foot corridor that the NJDWSC had carved out, and tore at the exposed roadway with rapids, funneling mud downriver. The woods that the NJDWSC had reduced to brush are now reduced to a rutted, muddy expanse along the river. It’s all the more vivid how prone the banks are to erosion.”
Two years ago, NJDWSC directed a $550,940 tree-cutting project throughout its miles-long system, not only in the Montclair preserve, but also through Montclair Country Club and parts of Wanaque, Pompton Lakes, Pequannock, Wayne, Little Falls, Clifton and Belleville. The entire system supplies over 100 million gallons of water daily to nearly three million people.
A May 2015 report commissioned by the water commission cited tree root damage to its aqueduct systems as most concerning, but other issues included access to the system, liability due to falling trees or limbs and wildfires and security issues as the trees could conceal dangerous activities.
Montclair has owned the preserve since the 1970s, when a citizens’ group lobbied to save the woodland from development. The Bonsal Preserve was named after a local resident whose family’s contribution augmented Green Acres funding for the purchase of the site. Due to the preserve’s Green Acres funding, its wildlife habitat and protected wetlands status, the DEP and the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Department should have been notified of the project by the water commission.
The water commission never filed the required easement paperwork with department.
“To date, we have received nothing from the commission or the town demonstrating their easement rights, despite numerous attempts to obtain such information,” said DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske.
In spite of that, on July 30, the water commission proceeded with tree clearing at Bonsal. Although the original estimate was 35 trees to be felled by the commission, 70 were cut down.
“The trees cut in the area include our property and Bonsal, so the number can be argued, but why? We are responsible citizens and understand that they wanted no trees cut,” water commissioner executive director Tim Eustace told Montclair Local immediately after the tree clearing. “However, water is a vital resource. This was done carefully. Our forester selected the trees to protect the line.”
On Aug. 9, DEP land use officer David Sumba toured the preserve with Friends of Bonsal officials, town officials, engineers and Eustace. The stumps of the 70 trees had been left in the ground, while 70 tree trunks were stacked up on the sides of the trail.
“Mr. Sumba was clear with the NJDWSC that they had operated inappropriately. He will be drafting a notice, but it simply provides them the opportunity to apply retroactively for the permit, and he assured them it will then be granted without issue,” Grupper said. “He will also advise them about remediation efforts they will need to do to protect the area from erosion. The NJDWSC officials maintained that they had minimized the impact and provided us with sufficient notice throughout. We kept reminding them otherwise.”
Sumba’s report was not complete by press time, according to Shinske. If the trees were removed for non-conservation, non-recreational purposes, Green Acres could require higher compensation for mitigation and replacement, she added.
Michael Spina, landscape architect with an expertise in wetlands restoration and Bonsal consultant, pointed to the Riparian Zone Model Ordinance.
“There shall be no clearing or cutting of trees and brush, except for removal of dead vegetation and pruning for reasons of public safety or for the replacement of invasive species with indigenous species,” the law reads.
He said many large native trees that were included in the removal were over 30 foot in height, and from areas along the existing stream bank and within the flood plain which will result in erosion along the banks.
“Removing co-dominant trees that compose the upper canopy along the easement will also result in significantly reducing the amount of shade along the trail and within the riparian areas,” he said. “This change in light availability is likely to advantage non-native invasive species and may result in the degradation of native vegetation.”
Wetlands mitigation projects are approved by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, subject to approval by the Zoning Enforcement Officer and subject to compliance with an approved Riparian Zone Management Plan.
“The stumps that are holding that [the banks] off won’t last long. The flooding makes it painfully clear how critical the need is for the NJDWSC to make good on its promise to restore the wetlands along the river,” said Grupper.
The preserve is coming off another tree clearing project. Clifton took down 27 trees on the 21-acre preserve in early May in order to replace and relocate an 80-year-old sewer line that runs under the property and services Clifton residences that border the preserve.
While the Clifton municipal government provided the Friends with regular updates and plans on replacing the trees, the water commission has been mostly mute on its project, said Grupper.
If the water company can’t produce a copy of its easement, the town could be at risk. If Green Acres considers the tree clearing a diversion, Green Acres could reach out to Montclair for mitigation; Green Acres has a contract with Montclair, not the water company, for the property, Shinske said.