HAMMONTON - The Environmental Commission voted Wednesday night to approve the removal of about 65 trees for the $5 million to $6 million Grape Street reconstruction project, which includes portions of Pratt, Packard and Second streets.

The vote, at a special joint meeting of the commission and Town Council, allows the municipality to move forward in planning the job and finding funding, officials said. They hope to start the project, involving replacement of underground utilities, roadway, curbing and some sidewalks, next spring.

About 40 residents came out to hear details of the project from Town Engineer Bob Vettese, of Adams, Rehmann & Heggan in Hammonton. He provided a list of individual trees slated for removal, by location.

The commission's approval is required under a municipal tree-protection ordinance that requires property owners, including the Board of Education or the municipality, to apply for a permit to remove any tree with a 20-inch diameter or greater; or any group of 10 or more trees per acre, with 7-inch diameters, Councilman Dan Bachalis said.

"We're replacing trees at a 1:1 ratio," said Environ-mental Commission Chair Bob Reitmeyer, "but some trees will be taking the place of what is now just a stump ... and many other trees that are obviously in decline."

Reitmeyer said the new trees planted after the road construction is complete will be 3-inch caliper trees.

"The ones we could save, we did our best to save," said Reitmeyer, who looked at all the trees in the project area with other commission members, council members and engineering staff.

Vettese said the town will apply for funding through the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust Fund to replace the underground water and sewer piping, some of which is so old it is made of terra cotta. Those funds would probably be available as a 50 percent grant, 25 percent zero-interest loan and 25 percent market rate, he said.

He said the town won't find out about such grants until next year, so it may have to bond the money and get reimbursed later.

"We're looking at bidding the end of this year and starting the first part of next year," he said.

Mayor Steve DiDonato said some additional trees may die in the wake of the project if their roots are too significantly damaged and that he would be in favor of paying to remove those trees. Usually it is the homeowner's responsibility, he said.

But Deputy Mayor Sam Rodio added it will be up to whomever is in office at the time a tree dies. DiDonato is up for re-election in November, challenged by Board of Education President Joe Giralo.

A couple of residents asked for special consideration for trees near their homes, but they were told they could not be saved because they were in the way of utility work, or the road was being shifted in a way that required their removal in order to save a larger number of trees on the opposite side of the street.

At a previous meeting, residents of Grape Street voted to keep it a two-way street after reconstruction, but allow parking on only one side, in order improve safety. Vettese said Wednesday night that his firm has determined the western side of the street provides more parking area.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: 609-272-7219