Few things so consistently provoke public opposition as cutting down trees that they enjoy. The latest instance is a small one but unfortunately not unique.
David S. Dempsey, a Pennsylvanian who has a second home in Avalon, cut down some trees growing on a dune between his house and the ocean. He pleaded guilty to damaging borough property.
This is done occasionally, said Avalon Mayor Martin Pagliughi, by people “who want to improve their views from private property.”
A citizen spotted Dempsey cutting the trees and reported him to the police. Public interest in keeping trees and stopping those who would cut them is strong enough that a report to police might be the least one could expect from such disregard for nature and public property.
Currently, residents in the Bass River Township area are vigorously protesting a state plan to cut enough of a tree farm around a watchtower so spotters can see and report fires before they become a danger to 50,000 area residents and firefighters.
Avalon itself felt the wrath of tree lovers a couple of years ago when it started cutting down Japanese black pines on its high dunes to combat southern pine beetles — but failed to provide residents with sufficient evidence that the beetles actually existed.
Two years before that, the borough strengthened its protections for trees on private property after residents complained lots were being cleared in defiance of an ordinance requiring builders “to maintain existing vegetation to the greatest extent possible.” Such tree protection laws were upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2009, which overturned rulings by two lower courts to back a township’s requirement that builders replace trees they cut down or pay into a fund to plant trees elsewhere.
And who can forget the uproar that ensued when the state cut down trees along a 35-mile stretch of the Garden State Parkway in preparation for the widening project (which, honestly, we now all enjoy).
Mayor Pagliughi deserves credit for taking a hard line on tree conservation. He said trees are part of the dune system that defends the community from storms and “Avalon maintains zero tolerance for this kind of selfish behavior.”
Dempsey was fined $2,000 and must pay $1,880 in restitution to the borough. That may sound like a lot, but consider that home values are high in Avalon, from several hundred thousand dollars to millions. It’s possible that an improved view could increase the value of a house by more than the fine and restitution combined.
Trees take a long time to reach maturity and aren’t readily replaced. Fines for destroying them for personal gain should reflect the years of slow growth undone and the public’s heartfelt desire to preserve them for future enjoyment.