Salem Country Club (copy)

Salem Country Club has run afoul of the Peabody Conservation Commission after cutting down nearly 700 trees on the property without informing the city — including 205 that are within the commission’s jurisdiction. Here, Hall of Famer Tom Watson wows the crowd during the 2017 U.S. Senior Open at the Peabody golf course.

PEABODY — City officials are considering significant fines, remediation orders and even the possibility of eliminating a property tax abatement after learning that Salem Country Club removed nearly 700 trees without telling anyone in the city.

And while the club’s general manager and chief operating officer Peter Fischl said it “takes full responsibility” for the unauthorized work, members of the city’s Conservation Commission said they’ve heard it all before.

“I’m sorry to say but you folks are habitual repeaters,” said commission vice-chairman Michael Rizzo during a contentious two-hour meeting Wednesday evening where the board voted to issue an enforcement order against the club.

“You folks should be ashamed,” Rizzo continued, suggesting that he believes the commission should consider daily fines retroactive to January for the unauthorized work.

Members of the commission will be at the golf course Monday afternoon for a site visit, where they can take a look at the areas of the golf course where the 683 trees were taken down over a two-week period in December and January.

The city’s conservation agent had been told previously that about 20 dead trees would be removed.

Of the 683 trees, 205 were in areas under the jurisdiction of the Conservation Commission, the club’s engineer from Weston and Sampson, said during the meeting. Areas that the commission would have oversight for include buffer zones and wetlands.

And a little more than half of those trees, 116, were in areas where the club regularly performs grounds maintenance, leading them to believe the tree removal was allowed, the engineer said.

The rest of the trees, the club believed, were outside the jurisdiction of the commission.

But while that might mitigate to some extent any actions taken by the Conservation Commission, the City Council earlier this month approved a request by Councilor Anne Manning-Martin to have the city’s lawyer, assessor and finance director look into whether the unauthorized work puts an annual 75% property tax abatement for the club in jeopardy.

That abatement was granted under a state law that was meant to encourage preservation of open space.

“They benefitted from those very trees they killed,” said Manning-Martin on Friday.

Both she and several Conservation Commission members also said they believe the golf course needs to be held to the same standard as any home or business owner in the city.

“They need to be held accountable, just like the average homeowner,” said Manning-Martin.

The enforcement order approved by the commission on Wednesday will require the club to conduct a formal wetlands delineation of the affected areas and pay the city’s costs of hiring its own expert to review that delineation — but the board said it will consider additional requirements going forward.

“He’s going to get fined, Salem Country Club is going to get fined, everyone is going to get fined to the max,” said commission alternate member Amanda Green toward the end of the hearing, as board members turned toward the tree service that took down the hundreds of trees in a two-week period in December and January before being ordered to stop.

“Did it ever cross your brain maybe you need to talk to someone in the city?” RitaMarie Cavicchio, an alternate member of the commission, asked Mayer Tree Service owner Dan Mayer.

Mayer said he was not made aware that the work would be taking place in protected buffer zones or that it might also have required a forest management plan.

Mayer said he relies on the property owner to have all permits in place when his firm is hired. “We trust them implicitly,” he said.

But the commissioners said they’ve long felt frustrated by the club’s actions, including the removal of trees in 2017 to create paved parking lots for a professional golf tournament, the Senior Open — a matter which still remains open five years later.

They also expressed skepticism as to why the trees were taken down.

Commission member Arthur Athas asked Fischl if the club is changing the course. The grounds superintendent insisted they were simply trying to improve the existing conditions.

Fischl told the board, “if trees compete with grass, the trees win, every time.”

Commission member Bruce Comak said as a golfer, he understands the need to maintain the greens.

“I play a lot of golf and Salem Country Club is an asset to the city of Peabody,” Comak said. “However, this is blatant. I don’t care what Salem Country Club says ... everyone at Salem Country Club knows what’s in our jurisdiction.”

“This makes a mockery of the commission,” he continued. “Every single time, you come up here and beg forgiveness rather than asking permission. Everybody knew damn well what they were doing beforehand.”

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

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