If a tree falls in Morristown, will anyone hear it? And, if they do, how much should the person pay who knocked it down?
An ordinance passed Tuesday night by Town Council has for the first time brought a "Destruction of Public Property" section to the police enforcement code. Now, administration can now step in if needed on such matters, which includes damage to town-owned trees. As strictly a law enforcement issue, there is a higher burden of proof required for someone to be found guilty, said Business Administrator Michael Rogers.
"[Now] there is more flexibility from a prosecutory standpoint," he said.
The new code section, however, has left Council Vice President Rebecca Feldman with some concerns.
"I'm glad we are recognizing trees as valuable property," she said. "But, the $2,000 maximum fine the code allows and its general approach may not take into account the value of a tree that is very old, and which has gained value over time. It also may not prove a large enough deterrent for anyone who knowingly caused a tree's damage.
"I don't think this gives us latitude," Feldman said. "Buildings are one thing—shade trees are also something we need to protect."
While Feldman, like the other council members in attendance (Councilman Kevin Gsell was not at the meeting), voted in favor of adopting the code addition, she said, "it doesn't go far enough."
Town Attorney Vij Pawar said a Shade Tree Commission will possibly be formed soon and, while it would not have the authority to supercede the "Destruction of Public Property" code, it could help further shape and define what penalties the destruction of town-owned trees could be.
Paul Miller, with the Office of Sustainability and a member of the Environmental Commission, said while a Shade Tree Commission would serve as an authority on town-owned trees, the inclusion of trees under the "Destruction of Public Property" code "is just being all-inclusive," he said. "They're public assets."
Still, Pawar noted, "it is difficult to put value on a tree. It may be difficult to enforce."