Trudy Wilson doesn't want to lose the view from her tree-shaded front porch in Haddon Heights.
She and her neighbors are upset by the possibility that at least five of the 10 or so healthy sycamores along their 600 block of West High Street would have to be cut down for a much-needed roadway, curb and sidewalk reconstruction project.
The fact that the borough's plan to redo the crumbling, heavily traveled street near Seventh Avenue School was well underway before residents heard a word about it also has people upset.
"We could have woken up one morning with the equipment out there and not known what's going on," said Wilson, 71, an actress who has lived for 46 years in the house where she and her late husband, Richard, raised their three children. "These trees are absolutely gorgeous. Some people have moved to the street because of them. I would hate to see them go."
Borough officials said no final decision has been made to proceed with the road project, which would be paid for with a $250,000 state grant. But as envisioned, the work would so damage root systems of the five trees that they would be unlikely to survive, said borough engineer Steven M. Bach.
"There's no way to re-asphalt the road without grinding roots," he said. "With the amount of construction activity, I cannot certify that the trees will remain viable."
In many older South Jersey suburbs like Haddon Heights, dense and diverse canopies of mature street trees have long been integral to community ambiance, curb appeal, and quality of life. The tree-lined streets are one of the reasons I moved to Heights a dozen years ago.
But disease, age, invasive pests — such as the emerald ash borer and spotted lanternfly — along with extreme weather and utility, road and sidewalk projects are collectively taking a toll on street trees across the region. And while most people generally feel kindly disposed toward trees, maintenance of this living infrastructure is often not a top priority for cash-strapped local governments.
Simply sawing down trees after they die is not the same as managing and nurturing this essential resource. Surely the public safety risks and liability concerns about dead or dying trees ought to be considered as seriously as the dangers of jagged pavements and jumbled curbstones.
"Every time money is put into the [municipal] budget for trees, it's the first thing to be cut. It's a disgrace," said Roni Olizi, who heads the all-volunteer Haddon Heights Shade Tree Commission.
Earlier this year, the Camden County Parks Department — steward of 2,000 acres of parks, 2,000 acres of open space, and tens of thousands of trees — was at last able to fill the position of park arborist, which had been vacant for years.
The county also hopes to complete and submit a Community Forestry Management Plan to the state next year. And while local street trees are not the department's responsibility, department director Maggie McCann-Johns said the county hopes to help smaller towns reach agreements to share tree-care services.
In Haddon Heights, there's no shortage of tree advocates. Steve Dorsey, a state-certified arborist, serves on the commission and in 2011 put together a walking guide to the borough's impressive variety of street trees.
Dorsey is not convinced that the work will inevitably kill the West High sycamores. Noting that he had not been asked to evaluate the trees in advance of preparations for the project, he said saving them never seemed to have been a consideration.
Borough Councilman Scott Schreiber, the liaison to the commission, said there is general agreement that the trees should be saved if at all possible. He also said he will work with the commission so it can be re-certified by the state; the most recent certification lapsed more than a year ago.
With all due respect to the commission, the council, the engineers, and others involved in this effort, why did it take an outcry from Trudy Wilson and her neighbors to focus attention on one of the borough's signature assets — the trees that have long helped make it a desirable place to live?
Haddon Heights can do better.