The pain at the pump surely is nothing compared with the pain of opening utility bills. With air conditioning season upon us out-sized electric bills are sure to arrive right along with the ice cream man. But homeowners who sleep under a canopy of trees will not have to sweat nearly as much as will their bare-lot neighbors. This is so, says the Department of Agriculture, because the net cooling effect of a young, healthy tree is equivalent to 10 room-size air conditioners operating 20 hours a day. Residents of a home nestled below a half dozen mature trees may well be able to do without air conditioning altogether.
Smart home buyers know this, and with oil flirting with $130 a barrel, they take the cooling effect of trees into account when choosing a home. But it’s not just energy savings that make trees a powerful selling feature. Ornamental trees, like the dogwood and the weeping cherry, are graceful year-round and spectacular in spring. Sturdy trees like the oak and the maple silently speak of comfort and stability. A study quoted by Arbor National Mortgage and American Forests reports that 98 percent of real estate brokers believe that mature trees have a strong or moderate impact on the salability of homes listed for over $250,000. The U.S. Forest Service adds that healthy, mature trees add an average of 10 percent to a property’s value.
Anyone fortunate enough to have a yard full of trees should know, however, that all is not perfect. There is wind, of course, but also improper care, drought, neighbors unhappy with their wandering branches, and even misguided utility workers eager to dig underground at the most convenient spot. Sometimes a tree has to go; often enough it can be saved.
Enter Rachel Roat, a Kingston lawyer, who is building a practice around coming to the aid of trees. While few attorneys east of California specialize in tree, garden, and neighbor law, Roat — who still practices labor law in Union City, as she has for 27 years — is increasingly focusing on the rights of trees.
“Trees are a lot like poor people,” she says. “They have no voice. It shocks me how few rights trees have, how little society values them, especially in light of global warming.”
The decidedly uncommon practice, likely the first in New Jersey, is a logical step for Roat, who thoroughly embraces the moniker “tree hugger.” Roat, a certified master gardener since 2005, is not just someone who likes trees, she knows all about them, and she knows the laws — or lack thereof — that exist in what is for her the somewhat ironically nicknamed Garden State.
“Tree law in New Jersey is in the Dark Ages,” she says. “Each town has its own rules about trees, and there are not sufficient controls over the import of trees.”
Take, for example, the blue spruce. First popularized as a Christmas tree, the blue spruce is, nonetheless, an alien in New Jersey. Its home is in the much cooler north, where summers do not steam it with 80 and 90-degree days. Still, Roat says, many landscapers plant blue spruce because it is thick and fluffy and beautiful to look at. But the tree simply does not belong this far south, and it will die many years before it would in the wild.
Such issues are at the core of Roat’s anger with uneducated, profit-driven landscapers, whom she unflinchingly attacks. Landscapers, designers, and contractors, she says, have sold a distorted package of ideas about plants, lawns, and trees that has not only proven not to work in the long run, but has also created unpleasant, often heartbreaking situations for homeowners who do not know what they are getting into.
Roat, for instance, talks about the dangers of the “mulch volcano,” a term referring to a mound of mulch piled at the base of a tree. Offering nearly imperceptible amounts of nutrition, the mound becomes shelter for voles and other small critters who can feast on the roots and stay out of sight of predators.
If a mulch volcano is too big and too close, the tree sends roots into it, thinking the mulch is ground. The tree feeds off the water in the mulch, and when it dries up, so does the tree’s drinking supply. Conversely, if the volcano stays wet, so does the tree base, which then weakens and becomes susceptible to rot and diseases.
Negligent contractors often pile mulch at the base of a tree and tell unknowing homeowners everything will be fine. And homeowners, likely concluding that mulch is designed to be beneficial and that landscapers know what they are talking about, ask few questions. Years later, they have to watch their favorite tree come down because it was never cared for properly.
Pepper deTuro, who runs Woodwinds Associates tree and plant care, just down the street from Roat’s Route 27 office, cringes when he hears tales like these. But while he admits that there is no shortage of inept landscapers and tree care workers out there, deTuro believes proper tree care begins with the homeowner.
“A little education goes a long way,” he says. He doesn’t expect homeowners to know what he — or the 41-year-old company his father, Sam, founded — knows about tree and plant maintenance. But he says that the basics are easy to grasp.
One of the basics is feeding and watering. Wild trees “have the best fertilization on the planet,” deTuro says, “the forest.” In the woods, after all, trees grow dozens of feet tall and can live hundreds of years, without a single visit from a tree surgeon. It is this very fact that leads people to believe they do not need to worry about the mighty oak sitting in their front yard.
But, as Mercer County horticulturist Barbara Bromley explains, this attitude can lead to the demise of a domesticated tree. “People assume that because a tree is in the ground a long time that nature is taking care of it,” she says. “But trees survive in the woods because everything drops to the forest floor.” Leaves, dead birds, plant detritus — all of these things settle on the ground and turn to compost, which nourishes the soil and the trees. “In our yards, we keep taking that away.”
And then there is watering. “People are always worried about their lawns,” Bromley says. “But your lawn is fine, it’ll come back. You don’t need to water the lawn, but water that tree.”
Like Roat, Pepper deTuro says one of the biggest problems he sees is the proliferation of non-native trees. Native trees, such as red maple or white oak, obviously thrive here, and some imports, like the southern magnolia, have adapted well. But sugar maples and pin oaks, native to New England, “need a lot of TLC” here, deTuro says. And some varieties can cause an enormous amount of trouble, simply because people do not know what they are putting in the ground.
Case in point, the blue atlas cedar. As its first and last names suggests, the blue atlas cedar matures into a stunning, smoky blue. But as its middle name suggests, it is immense — and immensely strong — when it grows up. “It’s a cute little puppy,” says Bromley, “but it can grow 80 to 120 feet tall. They don’t belong on small properties. When these things mature, it’s going to be a panic.”
Not to mention expensive. Removing less forbidding trees than blue atlas cedar, such as a 30-foot red maple, might cost $1,400, according to Pepper deTuro. And that would be under relatively smooth conditions. Figuring out how much it takes to remove a tree is as tangled as the network of roots beneath the tree in question. Where the tree is in the yard, how easily accessed it is, its size, and its species could volley the price between a range of hundreds of dollars.
Planting trees can jumpstart the same series of intangibles. A 12-foot version of that red maple could cost you $900 to buy and install, whereas a red leaf Japanese maple with the same sticker price might be one-third the size, deTuro says. According to Daniel Inverso, a tree specialist at the 28-year-old Ostrich Nursery in Robbinsville young maples, oaks, or ash trees can range from $150 to $600. At the $150 end, Inverso says, you find potted trees of small diameter (or caliper) — maybe an inch and a half across and eight feet tall. At the other end, there are 5-inch-caliper trees standing 20 feet high.
As far as trees-as-investment, however, Inverso says he has never known a customer to look at a tree specifically as a commodity to improve the value of a house. People who buy and plant trees in their yards, he says, do so for themselves. Anyone looking to use flora to make their house look better for resale will almost certainly take a more straightforward gardening route — small shrubs, ornamental (rather than shade) trees, flowers, and plants. There, savvy homeowners can invest $150 to $400 for an ornamental or fruiting tree that could stand as much as 15 feet. But still, few seem to view trees as a solely capitalistic investment.
“Wine is an investment,” Inverso says. “Gold is an investment. Trees are not an investment. Anyone looking to spend X dollars is going to go to the cheapest place he can find, it won’t matter what we’ve got.”
Still, a tree can be an expensive thing to lose, should a disease arise, or if the tree becomes dangerous or is poorly located. And often, says Barbara Bromley, the most economical avenue for someone trying to head off a bigger nightmare later is the chainsaw.
Losing a tree can be a highly emotional moment. For Roat, the master gardener, it is frustrating enough to know that people without adequate knowledge often are relying on landscapers who have inadequate training or credentials. But for Roat, the tree lawyer, it is especially bothersome to know an old tree has fallen at the hands of developers or utility companies. In fact, her practice was, to a large degree, founded on bad experiences with both these entities, the first in Virginia and the second at her home in Plainsboro.
Born and raised in Maryland, Roat, like her father, owns some land in Virginia. In 2005 the Virginia Highway Department was set to clear cut 24 acres of trees on her father’s property, though she says it had little reason to do it. Like New Jersey — and every other state in the union — Virginia offers very little in the way of protection for trees. Roat has held the highway department at bay so far, but only because she is a lawyer.
Soon after the brush with deforestation in Virginia, Roat, back in Plainsboro, was lucky enough to be at home when Verizon technicians came with plans to remove one of her trees and lay cables under the street. The technicians, she says, brandished a map and claimed to have an easement.
When pressed, the company could not provide proof of the easement and eventually put its cables in the ground across the street, without having to harm any trees. This incident, she says, underscores a serious problem. It took the kind of legal knowledge (not to mention chutzpah) few non-lawyers possess in order to get answers and win the argument. Most people do not know they don’t automatically have to cave into utility workers who say they have the right to carve up trees in front of their houses. Roat says developers and utility companies rely on the fact that most people do not have the resources to stop such actions.
Increasing rights for trees, then, is one of her main missions. If trees are protected from random, often unwarranted destruction, she says, fewer people will have to watch a favorite old elm come down before their very eyes — or worse, come home to a bare spot where that old elm used to be.
Roat’s unconventional approach to the law is an offshoot of the unconventional path she took to get to court in the first place. She studied French and economics, the latter for purely practical reasons, at Georgetown University before finding work in the financial management training program at General Electric in the early 1970s. Unfulfilled, she enrolled at Brooklyn Law School and began her legal career in criminal appeals before moving on to represent a doctor’s union in New York. She also has worked with what is now North Jersey Legal Services in Jersey City.
The daughter of a teacher mom and a mechanic dad, Roat says she developed an underlying interest in the botanical world through her Iowa-raised parents, who always fancied themselves farmers at heart. Eventually, her interest in plants and gardens led her to her master gardener certification.
Roat cites statistics suggesting that home values increase as much as 25 percent where there are tall, well-maintained trees on the property. Even though over-growth can become a problem, she says that she does not know of any situations in which property value has decreased because of trees.
In terms of legal headaches, few issues get suburbia as riled as the fate of a grand old tree sitting smack in the middle of a neighborly dispute. But, says Roat, fights over trees are so rarely about the tree. Fights begin over loud music or the neighbor’s dog. They just migrate to the trees.
But trees, which routinely flout property demarcations, lend themselves to tangled answers. Who, after all, is responsible for raking the leaves that blow indiscriminately around the neighborhood? An increasing trail of legal cases suggest that, more and more, a tree owner is responsible for everything involving that tree. And, as Bromley points out, responsibility’s twin is liability.
“Trees are incredible things,” Bromley says. “And they can make your life incredibly miserable.” Like the benefits, the problems trees can visit upon property owners can be crippling. There are squirrels, storm damage, and decaying limbs. And these problems do not just affect the yard in which the tree grows. They go where life takes them, often to the detriment of neighbors.
“Trees are an insurance liability,” Roat says. Branches alone can fall and become an outright danger. And if a tree falls in an urban or suburban neighborhood, it is bound to land on a fence, a house, a car, or a shed.
Roat says she is waiting for a case like one from Virginia that she keeps at ready reach. Last summer a fight over a tree between neighbors in Fairfax County led to the Virginia Supreme Court upending a 70-year-old precedent. The court ruled that homeowners have a right to sue to force neighbors to cut back or cut down trees that are deemed to pose “actual harm” or “imminent danger” to a house, and that tree owners can now be held liable for damage caused by a tree.
What worries Roat is that such rulings could open the door for bitter battles between neighbors that will ultimately put trees in the crossfire, even if claims about the danger or detriment of the tree are questionable.
The scenario is not so far fetched. In 2006, for example, residents fought to save a large pin oak growing outside Christ Congregation Church on Walnut Street in Princeton. The church wanted to put solar panels on the roof, a move that normally would earn raves from environmentalists. But for the panels to work, the tree had to come down.
The situation quickly escalated into a fight over the best shade of green. The church, which already had gained a reputation for environmental advocacy, said the panels would allow the church to lessen its reliance on the power grid and, thereby, reduce its carbon footprint. The oak’s supporters, citing the myriad benefits of saving the old tree, were enraged. The fight to save the oak — one of several trees on church grounds — peaked when chainsaws and emotional protesters arrived on the scene together. Thirty minutes later the tree was cut down.
The resulting bad feelings prompted church trustees to distribute a three-page explanation for its actions in which they equate the unnecessary reliance on fossil fuels with blatant disregard for the Christian belief in environmental responsibility. “As much as we value this one oak tree,” the statement reads, “we know that trees are renewable, unlike fossil fuel which is not.” The response also states that while trees do breathe carbon dioxide, it would take five acres of oak trees to inhale the amount of carbon dioxide the church’s solar panels will prevent from being created in the first place.
Despite her grounding as a labor lawyer, Roat so hates to see a situation go to court that her brochures lists the pecking order of her services as advice, negotiation, mediation, and then litigation. “Litigation is a last resort,” she says, that can be avoided with a little patience and understanding about what it takes to live with the trees surrounding our homes. Such scenarios are the reason Roat defines her practice as “tree, garden, and neighbor law.”
Rachel Roat, Attorney, 4444 Route 27, Box 205, Kingston 08528; 908-334-3590.
An Allee of Honey Locusts
Visitors to Governor’s Lane, a relatively new housing development in Princeton Township, enter the grounds through a verdant tunnel of four rows of trees, highlighted by spectacular 25-foot honey locusts (above). Most of the trees here (there are nearly 200 on and around the residential grounds) stood 15 feet tall in the early-to-mid 1990s when they were planted, says Witherspoon Street landscape architect Henry Arnold. And while he does not remember the cost of the project, Arnold says a developer today could expect to spend $1,500 to $2,500 per tree.
Much work goes into the design of such an environment, from replacing tainted soils to measuring where each piece of flora should go, Arnold says. While there are guidelines about the distances plants and trees should be from other objects, Arnold says site plans depend on several factors — the size, age, and type of tree, light angles, drainage, and the layout of the grounds, to name a few. But a responsible landscaper will take all these factors into account and plant trees that are likely to still be around many decades later.
Some tree care professionals argue that “if it looks done when the landscaper leaves, you’re in big trouble.” But Arnold maintains that such an attitude can be shortsighted.
“If it looks done, fine,” Arnold says. “But rather than looking at the negatives, I like to look at the positive effects trees have.”