Telling it on the mountain

Telling it on the mountain

We go out on a limb when trees seem to get in the way

Jon Lazarus stands by a tree in Eagle Rock Reservation.
Jon Lazarus stands by a tree in Eagle Rock Reservation.

“In our mountain greenery/
where God paints the scenery …”

— Rodgers and Hart

Towns and trees. Trees and towns. Perfect together.

Except, of course, when the balance is tipped and it becomes more town than trees.

Mark that down as happening in my backyard as West Orange confronts an arboreal deficit in real time. Development is churning, and that inevitably means bad outcomes for our leafy sentinels. A year ago, the municipal forester (yes, there really is such a position) reported that the green canopy had shrunk to 27% from 33% within our borders. Both the new council president and citizen representatives are on record as saying the optimal tree cover for West Orange should be about 40% of land mass.

Can that 13% gap be closed or even exceeded? Presently, the municipality is debating an amendment to its tree ordinance that would allow developers to place money in a trust fund and virtually kick the can down the road when they clear-cut a tract. It’s a bit like trading carbon credits. The noxious stuff still exists (trees trap and store it), climate quality continues to deteriorate, and the polluter is free to go about its business while paying minimally for the dirty deeds.

Do these concerns make me a tree hugger? I suppose so — and I’m comfortable with the appellation. And I do appreciate a tree town when I’m in one. Summit, Teaneck, Millburn, and Montclair are obvious tree towns. (Sorry if I omitted yours.) When driving or walking through them, I immediately sense the maples and oaks, even sycamores, planted a century or more ago, overarching the streets. I see saplings placed wherever space permits, supported by guy wires and stakes. And I visualize the effects of pruning and good maintenance. The replenishment cycle continues uninterrupted by these vigilant localities.

In West Orange, not so much.

My once viridescent community is chasing the self-defeating premise of more tax ratables at the expense of green space. Hopefully, enough residents will object to the trust fund provision and persuade the governing body to ax the proposal or modify it by requiring appropriate tree replacement species and insisting they be planted at the original site on a one-gone-one-gained basis.

And these safeguards don’t even factor in trees lost to age, insects, and the vagaries of nature. In the last few years, I’ve watched as borers made short work of my mature front-lawn ash and an invasive tenting species sapped the life of my three thundercloud plums. Recently, the rains and buffeting winds uprooted one of my two backyard blue spruces. And then there’s the voracious spotted lanternfly lurking about. Multiply and extrapolate these numbers townwide, statewide, nationwide, and globally, and the effects are virtually incalculable for the planet.

In light of these developments, it would seem both inappropriate and a sleight of hand for a municipality to allow a project on a mountain backslope that doesn’t just occupy the terrain but overwhelms it. Yet West Orange sanctioned such prestidigitation by greenlighting a massive apartment complex on what had been a much lower-profile section of First Mountain. Officials doubled down by permitting construction with a billowing footprint on the site of a previously failed and demolished cluster of office buildings.

I first became aware of the Stonehill development last summer while driving east on I-280 and reaching the crest of Second Mountain. With 254 units under construction in multiple structures, the red and orange sheathings of buildings in progress on the sister slope swelled above the tree line and hulked over the landscape in a glaring panorama.

These buildings have replaced the trees that once grew there, on the downslope of First Mountain.

During the last year, I’ve watched with dismay and resignation as the mountain and its contours have been irretrievably altered by the emerging barracks-like structures. Their facades alternate in gray and white cladding and were completed just in time to disrupt the dazzle of autumn foliage, or what remained of it. I don’t know if there was a net loss of trees in site preparation, but I do know a series of terraced retaining walls now act as bulwarks to prop the entire project.

When I drive by, my 81-year-old eyes wince at a scene that boggles senses and sensibilities. I’m no architect, engineer, or landscape designer, but it strikes me that town officials either misjudged or outright ignored the size and scope of what they allowed, its relationship to the terrain, and its impact on the immediate area and beyond.

Stonehill is situated just below the renovated Essex Green mall, now grandly rechristened the Essex Green Town Center. A drab parking garage more suited to a casino is joined at the hip of the development. When I called the parent real estate firm for information last year on possible tax incentives granted by West Orange, availability of affordable rate rentals, if any, infrastructure remediation, and landscape restoration, I was told no information would be available until spring. Now, Stonehill’s glossy website is up and running, touting an array of amenities available when leasing begins.

For more than a century, developers have been nibbling at First and Second Mountains. A surge in postwar housing and the huge gash inflicted on both ridges in the 1950s by blasting the roadbed for I-280 only accelerated the transformation. Original plans called for tunneling the highway, but I can remember moving to West Orange from Newark as a teen and hearing warning sirens followed by dynamite tremors so severe, they collapsed the chimney of our new home a half-mile away. (The state made good.)

This latest construction, though, isn’t just a nibble, it’s a gulp. Two of my biggest concerns are traffic and transit. The development sits astride I-280 yet it might as well be more than a horn’s beep away since there is no direct connection. The only entrance and exit to Stonehill feeds into the lone road looping the mall, which is already home to two hotels, the recently reopened West Orange library, and a host of retail establishments. A driver could face considerable headwinds just getting to the I-280 entrances, especially during rush hours.

Nor can the development be called a transit accelerator. The nearest train stations are in Orange and Montclair, both mini commutes in themselves, although the developers promise shuttle service to these destinations.

Throughout the township, from Eagle Rock Reservation to South Mountain Reservation, from the border with Orange (Edison’s laboratory, Llewellyn Park, Tory Corner) to our suburban boundaries with Livingston, Roseland, and Essex Fells, building activity abounds, including several mid-rise apartment complexes, additional seniors housing (at the site of the demolished library), a self-storage warehouse being gouged into the base of Second Mountain, and even proposals for a film production facility.

The cumulative effect is predictable: More traffic, greater air and noise pollution, stress on the schools, loss of suburban character, and a fall-off in quality of life. Even though its population now exceeds 50,000, West Orange lacks a full-time planner, although the governing body is debating a proposal to create the post.

The township’s recent development record seems mixed at best. Financing difficulties dogged the Edison Lofts project at the Wizard’s repurposed battery plant, with retail and rental space still vacant years later. And residents recall with a shudder when a sliver of First Mountain collapsed onto an apartment complex, forcing dozens of tenants into homelessness. The accident occurred at the base of a new athletic complex where an old-growth forest was compromised during site preparation.

Do I sound too much like a cranky senior upset because West Orange no longer looks the rustic way it did in 1957 when my family moved to a new home atop Second Mountain? As someone who has never missed a tax payment (please repave my street while you’re at it), I feel legitimately justified in venting over the direction the township appears headed.

Although it would be presumptuous to compare First and Second mountains to the storied sites of the Holy Land — Sinai, Moriah, Ararat, and Masada — they do have history. The parallel peaks form an outcropping of the Watchungs and played a key role in the Revolutionary War as Continental and British troops maneuvered south after battles in New York. General Washington used the terrain to screen his  army for winter encampments and ultimately position them for battles and victories to come.

Bottom line: Let’s stop messin’ with the mountains and Mother Nature (she wins every time!). With Tu BiShvat just past, I await the arrival of spring and a chance to plant a tree.

Jonathan E. Lazarus is a retired editor for the Star-Ledger and a copy editor at the Jewish Standard/NJJN. His roots in newspapering run deep.

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