PEABODY — The Conservation Commission and the Salem Country Club are at odds over a restoration plan and what the club must pay peer reviewers after the club cut down 233 trees without city approval.
At the direction of the club’s manager, the trees were chopped down by Mayer Tree Service during a redesign of the club’s Forest Street golf course last winter. Peabody officials initially thought that only a handful of trees would be removed from the course during the redesign, yet nearly 700 were cut down — including 233 that the commission has jurisdiction over because they were on wetlands or bordered on wetlands.
The club and Mayer Tree were each ordered to pay $70,000 in fines at a commission meeting in early November. The commission also voted for the club to pay about $22,000 in peer review costs, about $15,000 of which had already been paid.
On Nov. 28, the commission forwarded the club a proposal from the peer reviewer to provide additional services for an estimated amount of $28,000, according to court filings from December.
That was reduced to a lump sum of $14,000 on Dec. 1 on the condition that the club receive future invoices every two weeks until the completion of the project, but the club only paid half of that cost, said Barry Fogel, the club’s attorney in the matter.
“We told (the commission) that if we got to the point where additional funds turned out to be necessary, we would review what work was required and what was being done and would add additional amounts,” Fogel said at the commission’s Jan. 11 meeting. “The club is not willing to put unlimited amounts of money into this indefinitely as this project goes on.”
The club needs to pay the peer reviewer’s bill as required by the city regardless, said Vice Chairman Michael Rizzo, calling the club’s action “not acceptable.”
“It’s a lot of work reviewing these projects like this,” Rizzo said at the meeting. “You can’t be dealing with wondering whether or not he can’t work today because there’s no money in the account, so I want that money put back in the account to cover that cost. I want that done now.”
Fogel would not agree to pay the remaining $7,000 at the meeting.
The commission previously ordered the club to submit a restoration plan of the felled trees by Nov. 30.
While the club did submit a document that outlined the areas of its property where trees will be replanted and what types of trees it aims to plant, commissioners argued that the document provided more of a narrative about the work that must be done rather than plans for actually doing it.
“I have been doing this since 2006 and I have never worked on a restoration plan where you only have a narrative unless it was in someone’s backyard and they’re putting like four blueberry bushes,” said Lucia DelNegro, the city’s conservation agent.
“If I’m not here in five years, if I’m not here in six or seven years, I don’t know how anyone’s going to ever know what was supposed to be done, where it was supposed to be done,” she said. “This is such a large site.”
The club did submit a document in June that showed where the delineated buffer zones are along with the areas where the trees are going to be planted, Fogel said.
He said the club doesn’t know exactly where each new tree will go because it doesn’t yet know where the trees’ root balls will go. These root balls will be roughly 2 feet in diameter and will require holes at least 2 feet deep and 3 feet in diameter per the suggestion of the club’s arborist, Fogel said.
The club also cannot guarantee it will be able to get every tree it seeks to order from nurseries if that order isn’t placed soon, Fogel said.
“I can guarantee you that you’ve never seen anything at the scale like we’re talking about here and the prospect of creating landscaping plans for tens of thousands of square feet of planting,” Fogel said. “Trying to show you a bubble image of where a white birch is going to go versus where a red oak is going to go is an impossibility.”
The club plans to record the exact coordinates of where each tree is planted using GPS tracking and give this data to the commission, he said.
“That way, we’ll have a specific indicator of what trees are planted where and exactly where they are as opposed to just giving you a cartoon of some sort that shows where we could space them,” Fogel said.
The club still needs to submit a formal plan, as required by the commission, Rizzo said.
“(This plan is) going to show the restoration areas and the plants themselves, where they’re going to be, how they’re going to be planted — all details that go with that,” Rizzo said. “It’s very important because unless that’s specified and shown, we can’t do our job and there’s no way of documenting or even evaluating that the plan… is going to meet the spirit of the enforcement order.”
The club also argues that the commission’s orders have included “arbitrary, unreasonable and punitive requirements” since it says there is no evidence that the removal of the trees in the city’s wetland buffer zone caused any harm to the wetlands there, according to court filings.
“We’re at the point now where the club… believes that the replacement of trees is punishment as opposed to just simply replacement of them for an environmental benefit,” Fogel said.
Commissioner Arthur Athas said that analogy is like allowing bank robbers to keep the money after they are caught.
“The point is that you did something in violation and there’s repercussions for that,” Athas said. "And it’s really not a lot of repercussions, by the way.”
Members of the commission, Fogel and City Solicitor Donald Conn will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the restoration plan and the peer reviewer’s payment.