CHATHAM – In reaction to the recent cutting of trees along town-owned land bordering the Seaside Links Golf Course, the board of selectmen is considering a strict policy punishing those who encroach on municipal property.
Officials detailed a half dozen incidents where abutting property owners encroached on town land; four of them bordered the golf course, and two others involved land near town cemeteries.
The most recent incident involves property at 233 Seaview St., which backs up to the town-owned golf course. Last Month, while the golf course advisory committee was reviewing a request by a local tree company to remove three locust trees on golf course property, the company went ahead and removed the trees without authorization.
Under a state law that governs unauthorized cutting or girdling of trees on another property owner's land, the aggrieved owner—in this case the town—can seek up to three times the amount of the damages. In the Seaview Street case, the town has asked Bartlett Tree Experts to replace the cut trees with four replacement trees along golf course property and is requiring that the company maintain the plantings for a year.
Last year, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith sent a letter to all property owners abutting the golf course notifying them that the town would seek damages in the event of unauthorized tree and vegetative cutting, as well as placement of fences and structures, on town property. The town is also looking into putting up “tasteful” boundary markers along town property, particularly at cemeteries, where there has been trash dumping and, in one case, a shed placed on town land, she said.
Clearly the letter was not enough, said Selectman Cory Metters.
“The golf course is getting beat up,” he said. “This is vandalizing town property. I want to have some teeth moving forward.”
The most recent incident at the Seaview Street property appears to have been the result of a miscommunication, said Park Director Dan Tobin. Bartlett has agreed to replace the trees in a location chosen by the town, he said.
But some of the other instances were clearly cases where property owners were trying to enhance views, said Selectman Jeffrey Dykens. He called the girdling of trees on golf course property “unbelievable” and said there were “only a couple of likely suspects.” The dead trees should be replaced by “the biggest trees we can find” and be placed in the same location.
“I feel strongly about this,” he said. “It's unconscionable.”
Other incidents of encroachment on town property include small trees cut down on golf course land behind the Wayside Inn; they were replaced by three Leland Cypress trees to screen the area and keep pedestrians from cutting through to the golf course from Kate Gould Park; several trees girdled between the eight green and the ninth forward tee near Fairway Drive, including mature oak and pine trees which were vandalized by a strip being cut along the circumference of the trunk and herbicide apparently applied; small brush cut along town property adjacent to Kettle Drum Lane; dumping of brush and leaf debris by abutters to the South Chatham Cemetery.
The proposed policy requires than anyone encroaching on or altering public land be required to restore the land to its original condition and pay for all expenses related to doing so, including having the land surveyed and marked as part of a restoration plan, legal, permitting and insurance fees as well as demolition. If the encroaching party does not cooperate, the policy dictates that the town develop and implement a restoration plan or seek restitution through legal means.
It breaks down encroachment onto town property into three levels. The highest level, level 3, deals with encroachment that poses a potential or immediate safety, health or other hazardous condition. Level 2 encroachment poses a “significant” incursion or alteration of public land, repetitive actions or actions with purposeful intent. Level 1 is an encroachment that does not reach level 2 or 3.
The policy allows the town manager to refer encroachment to the police department for investigation; with level 3 encroachments, the police and fire department will be notified immediately to begin mitigation.
State laws dealing with this type of situation can result in misdemeanor or criminal penalties, Goldsmith said, which may be harsher than the town wants to impose. Dykens said the policy being proposed is long overdue, and the board agreed to hold a second reading in the near future.