Clifton has started a tree and vegetation replacement project at the Alonzo F. Bonsal Preserve just over its border in Montclair, after cutting through vegetation on the property in 2018 in order to replace its sewer line.

“The Friends of Bonsal have been working for 20 years to resolve the challenges we faced with Clifton’s failing sewer line. This restoration project is the culmination of that effort,” Jonathan Grupper, a member of the Friends group, said on its behalf. “Almost 300 trees and bushes and over 8,000 square feet of native grasses is a big upgrade for a little preserve.”

In May 2018, Clifton cut down 30 trees on the 21-acre property in order to replace and relocate an 80-year-old sewer line that runs under the property and services Clifton residences near the preserve.  Later that year, the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission cut down dozens more.

Montclair has owned the preserve since the 1970s, when a group of residents lobbied to save the woodland from development. The Bonsal Preserve was named after a local resident whose family’s contribution augmented Green Acres funding for the purchase of the site. The urban preserve consists of wetlands and uplands surrounding the Third River, a major tributary of the lower Passaic River watershed. 

After the Friends of Bonsal Preserve, the group that oversees and advocates for the property, lobbied the city to restore the property following the year-long sewer line project, Clifton officials agreed to dedicate $240,000 for tree plantings and grasses. 

From left, Bony Ramirez, Jose Poma and Evan Widner put a tree into the ground, Nov. 17. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
From left, Bony Ramirez, Jose Poma and Evan Widner put a tree into the ground, Nov. 17. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

Last week, Clarke Moynihan Landscaping crews were scattered about the preserve with hole digging machines, and trucks full of large trees bound in balls and native grasses. 

Out of the four bids for the project collected by Clifton, Clarke Moynihan Landscaping was the lowest bidder, coming in at $239,851. The restoration includes the procurement and planting of 254 trees and shrubs, and the planting of lowland meadow seed mix.

In 2001, Clifton’s sewer line burst and the city was able to patch it with minimal damage to the flora. But during repairs in 2008, 10 trees needed to be razed. At the time, Montclair was promised replacement of those trees, but the trees weren’t planted until now.

Ten years later, the city embarked on a $5 million replacement and relocation sewer line project plan, but more trees that were in the way of the construction were felled. Clifton City Manager Dominick Villano sought out new technology that allowed for a more preserve-friendly approach, however. The city used horizontal-directional drilling, with piping installed through tunnels underground and on the edge of the preserve. Without this new technology, more deforestation could have
occurred, according to Grupper.

In 2018 during a meeting at the Montclair’s Municipal Building, the Friends were told that for every tree cut down – including those taken down in 2008 – Clifton would install 10 new trees.

Last week, the crews were planting white oaks, northern red oaks, maple leafs, Appalachian spring dogwoods, American beeches, white oaks, tulip trees, red and white maples and eastern redbuds. Spicebush and meadow grass seed are also being planted as part of the project All of the trees and plants are native, Grupper added. 

“We’re especially appreciative of Clifton City Manager Nick Villano, who had the vision to realize the whole undertaking, ambitious as it was. Thanks to them, we're being given a whole new lease on life,” Grupper said.

In July 2018, a few months after the city razed the 30 treats, the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission cut down several dozen as well.  Part of the commission’s miles-long system, which supplies more than 100 million gallons of water daily to nearly 3 million people, cuts underground through the preserve.

The Friends group puts the total cut down by the commission at 70, though at the time commission executive director Tim Eustace described it as a few fewer — 35 on the Bonsal property itself, and another 30 on an easement the commission has through the preserve. 

Eustace had said the tree clearing was needed due to root damage to the pipes, as well as liability and security issues.

The North Jersey District Water Supply Commission was given a notice of violation by the state for improper notification and permitting. Due to the preserve’s Green Acres funding, its wildlife habitat and protected wetlands status, the Department of Environmental Protection should have been notified of the water commission’s tree cutting project.

It has since completed a remediation plan that included planting grasses as well as blueberries and rosewood bushes along the river. No trees were replaced.

Grupper said that none of those bushes survived, and they’re now overrun with knotweed and other invasive species. 

Eustace has not yet returned a Nov. 18 email asking if the commission plans on restoring those areas and replacing the bushes that died.

The state regulates and requires permits for the destruction of plant life, which would alter the character of a freshwater wetland, including killing vegetation by applying herbicides or by other means, the physical removal of wetland vegetation, and/or the cutting of trees and the construction of structures in freshwater wetlands areas.