When Clark Perks' family was attracted to Medford more than 40 years ago, the lure was the shady, green environment.
“We moved here because of the woods. Because of the trees,” Perks, of West Centennial Drive, told Township Council last week. The family moved from Audubon, Camden County, where a property can be lucky to boast of five trees, he said.
Perks made it clear he was fully behind an ordinance to restrict clear-cutting trees in the township and to restrict the number of trees a resident may take down in a year. "If anything, the ordinance doesn’t go far enough," Perks said, suggesting that cutting down just one tree should require a permit and that another tree be planted in its place.
After about two hours of pro-and-con public discussion from two dozen residents, the council on October 6 voted 5-0 to adopt the ordinance that's been under development for years. The ordinance requires a permit if a resident wants to remove more than three trees in a 12-month period from an existing lot with a residential dwelling. No more than 10 trees may be removed in any five-year period.
No permit is required to remove dead or diseased trees, or trees that present a hazard, or trees removed for construction of a new home, an addition, swimming pool and similar projects. More trees may be removed, but the project requires a permit from the township.
"The primary goal of this ordinance is to prevent clear-cutting of properties that has been happening in the township while we have been on the council," council member Bradley Denn said in presenting the ordinance. "It balances the right of the property owner while preventing clear-cutting," he said.
But several of the residents who spoke disagreed with Denn, saying the township was infringing on their property rights and introducing more government regulation when none is needed. Two sides emerged: those against, although many of them said they oppose clear-cutting, and those in favor.
Perks said his homeowners association forbids cutting down trees, whether dead or alive, without submitting a review application. "I will never understand why someone moves to Medford, a largely wooded town, a designated tree city, and immediately clear-cuts all of the trees on their property," he said.
Bruce Ebbeson, a member of the township Environmental Affairs Advisory Committee, which worked on the draft ordinance, said the law was "a lot more watered down" than originally proposed. He attributed some clear-cutting to residents moving in and wanting lawns. "You don't need to have a nice lawn to have a nice yard," the Cobbler Court homeowner told council members.
"The reason we all live here is because we like what we see here. It’s like camping all the time. I love it. There’s not too many places you can go like this," Jonathan Fisher, a West Centennial Drive resident, told council. "I don’t understand why people move here because they like what they see and then soon as they move here as a new resident they start changing it."
One theme repeated by several homeowners was that the size of a property isn't taken into consideration because the limit of three cut trees each year applies to all properties, no matter how large. Some residents said their interest isn't clear-cutting, but their acreage is so loaded with trees that downing only three a year without a permit was unreasonable.
"Do not tell me how I can use my property as I see fit," Jason Kleinman of Quail Ridge Court said. Kleinman said his 2½-acre lot is packed with pine trees. "You look at them wrong" and they just fall over, he said. With no warning, the shallow-rooted tree can blow down and do property damage, he said.
John Walton of Bear Head Road said he counted at least 150 and possibly as many as 200 trees on his nearly two-acre property. "There's no provision for lot size," he said of the ordinance. "This has to be tweaked. It definitely does."
Forests have outlived and overgrown themselves, said Harry Adler, who lives on Hawkin Road in Southampton but has 18 acres in Medford. “Now everybody else is going to have Big Brother telling what you can and cannot do with your land," he said.
Greg Law of Warrior Way said he has taken down 40 trees on his property over the years and plenty are left. "I am surrounded by trees," he said, adding that he needs to be able to cut down disfigured trees and those hanging over his house.
Housing developers in Medford have clear-cut trees to build homes — a practice exempted from the restriction in the ordinance. "You’re allowing lot clearing for building, and you’re not allowing us to do what we want with our own property," said Karlanne Stradling, of South Lakeside Drive.
Mike Sanzick of Christopher Mill Road, said he was completely against the ordinance. He cited housing developers around Route 70 in Medford who left no trees when they built homes. "That’s clear-cutting, not what people are doing in their yards," he said.
Pam Sloves of Teak Court, said she agreed about developers, but also supported the ordinance. "You can't have developers come in here and cut all of our trees down, either. We have to save some."
Council member Denn, who explained the ordinance before public comment, blamed the news media for the dissent. "There has been numerous newspaper articles and online posts that are fueling negative emotions and strife. That is what sells newspapers," Denn said.
Mike Eden, a 43-year resident who lives on Christopher Mill Road and said he opposed the ordinance, complained he couldn't find a copy of it on the township website. "I couldn't find out exactly what was in the ordinance," he said. He found a copy only when he searched on Google and found a link to the ordinance in a news article. Township officials said the latest version of the ordinance was on the site the day before last week's meeting and that previous versions were posted and then taken down for revisions.