Tree ordinance questioned

Alexandria Borough resident Jane Pilch stands next to a tree on her Shelton Avenue property that council has said would need to come down because it allegedly violates the shade tree ordinance.

Members of the public expressed incredulity regarding Alexandra Borough’s Shade Tree Ordinance at the July 9 borough council meeting.

The ordinance was part of the meeting discussion involving council’s plans to remove several trees in the borough, to which residents strongly objected.

Borough council president Mike Smith, vice president Rebecca Smith and council member Scott Glass voiced support for the ordinance, citing serious safety concerns, while council member Judy Scott sympathized with the public and called for delaying any action that was not unanimously agreed upon, as she said council is operating as half a board.

As noted in The Daily News, council member Scott Glass said at Monday’s meeting that Alexandria Borough adopted a state ordinance in 1971 and that the borough is no longer in compliance.

“That ordinance has specific rules about a tree’s allowable height, size, girth or anything that is a hazard or that is rotting, or a potential limb or tree fall. Right now we’re not maintaining compliance,” he said.

According to council members M. Smith, R. Smith and Glass, the borough’s shade tree ordinance calls for any tree over 20 years of age or larger than a 2-foot diameter to be removed.

“I believe morally we have a responsibility to look out for the safety of the borough residents. We have to follow the law,” said M. Smith, who also serves as head of the borough’s shade tree commission.

He also noted that no trees will be cut down right now, as they approved seeking professional advice about the trees in question.

“We listened to the public at Monday’s meeting and decided as a council to get an arborist’s opinion before removing any trees, as they suggested,” said M. Smith.

Jude Harrington, head U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger at Raystown Lake, who spoke at the meeting, said he inspected the trees in question and saw no safety hazard or signs of disease.

“I would challenge that ordinance,” he said.

The borough’s code in question, subsection B of Chapter 27 on Shade Trees, which was updated in 2004, does not in fact have anything that governs the height, age or girth of a shade tree necessitating removal, although the law states that a council may “upon notice as may be provided by ordinance, require owners of a property to cut and remove plants shrubs and trees afflicted with any disease that threatens to destroy plants, shrubs and shade trees in the borough under regulations prescribed by ordinance.”

It also allows local agencies to set their own ordinances on the issue.

The Alexandria Borough Shade Tree Ordinance similarly has no age, height or girth prescriptions regarding trees. The ordinance does state that trees that are “seriously damaged, disfigured or constitute a hazard to the public, may be removed by the borough” at the Shade Tree Commission’s discretion.

The borough ordinance also states that “Prior to tree removals from public rights of way, notice shall be provided to the property owner(s) immediately adjacent to the tree(s) to be removed. The property owner may appeal the removal to the Shade Tree Committee, council and mayor.”

Borough resident Dolores Gahagan was at Monday’s meeting. She told The Daily News she found out about the possible removal of her trees from a friend.

She reached out to Mike Smith but, “he never told me anything about when they would be cut down. I still don’t know when or if they’re going to come down. I don’t know anything,” she said.

She said she left the meeting distressed.

“My whole point was that the age or size of a tree should not constitute the need to remove it, but I think the council already made up its mind. I thought the meeting was rude and ugly,” she said.

Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, told The Daily News there needs to be open lines of communication between the borough and the public.

“The fact that the council does not have an understanding of the specific ordinance in question is a problem,” she said.

Jim Foster, a borough resident who spoke in favor of preserving the trees at Monday’s meeting, also thinks communication can improve.

“The borough has to somehow come up with a better way to communicate with the public, whether it’s handouts or flyers or email. I don’t think it’s that hard. And I hope they don’t cut down any trees without following the proper procedures,” he said.

Jane Pilch, a former borough council member, has trees next to her property on Shelton Avenue that are up for removal. She also spoke at Monday’s meeting.

“My thought is to keep the healthy, historic trees. They add beauty to the community. And, as you replace some that have been butchered by the power line people, replace them with a more street-friendly tree.”

“I found out about the tree removals in passing,” she said.

The borough’s ordinances can be viewed at the Alexandria Public Library.

Nathan can be reached at nwoods@huntingdondailynews.com.

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