August 17, 2016

Atlantic City’s Trees Battle Hostile Conditions

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True urban trees: tree-themed street art in Snake Alley (Westminster Ave), Atlantic City

Atlantic City’s trees, which already contend with hurricanes, salt water, pollution, icy winters and scorching concrete, are now also showing wear and tear as a result of the city’s financial crisis and its haphazard patchwork of planning rules.

Since the Public Works department’s budget was slashed amid city-wide cuts, there are fewer people on hand to prune, water and care for the city’s greenery. Now, damaged trees are causing hazards and few replacement trees are being planted.

City trees matter because, as every elementary school kid knows, they give us oxygen. But they can also help increase property values, make a city more attractive and do useful things like provide shade and suck up storm-water runoff.  The importance of having a so-called urban forest is part of state and city law. But no one really planned to fund that, even when the going was good at the northern end of Absecon Island.

Step in Atlantic City’s Shade Tree Committee, a small crew of volunteers led by former Atlantic City firefighter Bobby Greene, who put in time and effort to care for the city’s trees. Recently, the group pruned the trees around the Richmond Avenue school. The trees there are young and need more care than some of the city’s more established trees, Greene explained, on a tour around the city earlier this month.

The Committee, in partnership with volunteers from local schools and groups such as Atlantic City Electric, organizes activities for Arbor Day (the last Friday in April) and has been able to help out with some of the work that previously was done by the city.

The budget cuts have diverted resources toward essential maintenance and that has come at the expense of tree care, explained the Committee’s Chairman Greene and Vice Chairman Frank Battaglia. “It’s really putting a stress on the appearance and operation and function of the city,” said Greene.

Many of the tree hazards that exist in Atlantic City now are the result of overgrown street trees that were planted in the 1970s. “Certain trees are drought resistant, salt-water tolerant and wind tolerant,” said Greene. “You can’t just take a tree and think “That looks nice, we should put some of these in!” That has happened, and the root systems are destroying sidewalks.”

The trees planted decades ago were not the best choice for the city’s streets, according to the city’s Chief Landscape Architect Robert Preston, who works with the Shade Tree Committee. Now, he frequently fields calls from residents with reports of sidewalks being heaved up by roots, or complaints that tree roots are busting pipes*.

In better times, the city often helped residents care for trees that were adjacent to their property, but now it just doesn’t have the resources, Preston said. “There used to be a tree crew,” he said, adding, “It’s always been the responsibility of the adjacent property owner but the city had resources in the past to be able to help out with that, we just don’t have those same resources now.”

Preston said that street trees face a particular battle in Atlantic City. “It’s tough here, it’s very, very difficult to get trees past a certain point,” he said, explaining that the combination of putting a young tree in hot concrete and then expecting it to deal with lack of irrigation, and a seashore environment that includes drying windbourne sand and salt air, as well as the relatively shallow water table which prohibits root growth, increases the maintenance burden for street trees.  Trees in Atlantic City’s parks, particularly those a few blocks from the boardwalk, generally fare better, Preston said, but even then he has found he has to select varieties carefully for the local environment. (See the end of this article for a table of salt-water tolerant trees).

Atlantic City created a community forestry management plan in 2012, but parts of the plan – such as an inventory of tree hazards and sidewalk maintenance – have fallen by the wayside as the city has tightened its belt. On a tour of the city’s trees, Greene pointed out street trees along New York Avenue, where metal grates purchased by the city to surround the trees have gone missing. Pea stone that was supposed to replace the grates was also never laid down, Greene said.

Patchwork Planning

Atlantic City’s trees are also suffering the consequences of a wider problem in the city. Difficulties coordinating between the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which controls planning in the Tourism District, and City Hall, which is responsible for planning in the rest of the city, means no one seems to know who is doing what and when to which trees.

At a recent CRDA hearing for a use variance to open a parking lot on the site of the former Sands casino, once the green Artlantic space,  representatives from the owner, Boardwalk Piers (the company behind the Polercoaster), requested permission to plant 32 trees instead of the 71 trees stipulated on the land ordinance. Engineer and planner Jon Barnhart told the hearing that, “I think everybody’s familiar with the — with the issue that street trees in the — in the beach block are very, very difficult to keep alive. They’re very difficult to maintain.” Boardwalk Piers’ lawyer did not respond to requests for comment about its tree-planting plans.

City officials and Shade Tree Committee officials were unaware of the requested waiver for the site, which is close to a whole city block, but they noted that there is no reason trees will not grow on beachfront-blocks as long as they are carefully selected and maintained. CRDA spokeswoman Elaine Zamansky said, in an email, “It’s important to note that the parking lot is meant as a temporary use of the property, which had a bearing on the decision.”

Shade Tree Committees exist all over New Jersey and they are backed by the New Jersey Shade Tree and Community Forestry Assistance Act, which provides tree-related liability protection to municipalities if they meet certain requirements, as well as grant assistance to urban forests. For Atlantic City’s Shade Tree Committee, a city ordinance gives them jurisdiction over planting, removal or replacement of public trees, including in the CRDA Tourism District.

Shade Tree Committee Ordinance

The Committee’s officials said CRDA does not always consult with them, however. Battaglia said, “We’re still creating the networking to be able to cooperate if everybody’s willing.” When asked to respond to those comments, CRDA spokeswoman Elaine Zamansky said, “The CRDA and the City of Atlantic City do communicate as needed.” Zamansky sent a further statement in response to the question of whether CRDA consults with the Shade Tree Committee:

Zamansky added that the Authority is not responsible for removing dead branches from overgrown trees outside closed casinos, such as the former Trump Plaza, or for tending to the neglected and dying shrubs outside the shuttered Atlantic Club, even though those properties are smack-bang in the middle of the Tourism District.

CRDA levies a special tax on businesses in the Tourism District “to create a cleaner, greener, and safer Tourism District,” but those fees do not go even half way to covering the costs of the Authority’s Special Improvements Division, which does everything from litter removal to tree pruning.

The Authority’s goal is to prune 5%-10% of the trees in the Tourism District each year, Zamansky said.  “As there are thousands of trees in the District, our primary responsibility is to maintain trees that pose a hazard, those that have greatly overgrown their locations, and those that are on or adjacent to CRDA-owned property.”

“We do respond to requests by residents and businesses in the Tourism District and evaluate each situation individually to determine if it is within our jurisdiction.  Often, they are trees that pose a hazard due to growing through electrical lines, which require the electric company to cut back, or they are owned by another party and we are prohibited from working on them.”

The volunteers of the Shade Tree Committee, meanwhile, are continuing their work in spite of financial limitations. “There’s a lot of frustration in trying to plan for an urban forest without any resources – but we keep rowing,” said Battaglia.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Shade Tree Committee, you can get in touch with the city’s Preston, who is responsible for liaising between the city government and the Shade Tree Committee. His contact details are here.

If you would like more information about New Jersey’s urban forests and if you would like to find out how else you can help, more information is available on the Department for Environmental Protection’s site here.

Salt-Water Tolerant Trees

This list was originally compiled by Mark Dermitroff for the Ocean City Shade Tree Committee. You can see that list, along with helpful information for planting trees on barrier islands, here.

Common NameLatin NameDetails
BlackgumNyssa sylvaticaThis tree is native to most of the eastern United States and will tolerate spring flooding as well as salt. Link to blackgum facts
Atlantic White CedarChamaecyparis thyoides (L.)This evergreen is native to the East Coast, but coastal development is limiting its habitat. Link to atlantic white cedar facts.
Common HackberryCeltis occidentalis L.This is also native to most of the United States and will tolerate full sun and wind. Link to hackberry facts.
MaidenhairGinkgo species
Not a native tree, but it is drought resistant and tolerates cold winters. It has been introduced to the northeastern United States. Link to maidenhair facts.
CrapemyrtleLagerstroemia indica L.Not native, but introduced to the southern United States and increasingly common in South Jersey. It flowers and is drought tolerant. Link to crapemyrtle facts.
Red MulberryMorus rubra L.Native to the eastern United States, red mulberry and its relatives tolerate sand and salt. Link to red mulberry facts.

*Preston said tree roots do not damage sewage or water pipes, but the roots do seek out water and nutrients, so they will detect leaks. “People keep telling me they don’t want to plant trees because they bust pipes. No they don’t.”

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