Jim Thorpe Borough Council met at the borough's new municipal building Tuesday night in a workshop to form the committees that will do much of the council's work over the course of the next year and to discuss certain items that would be coming up on the agenda at Thursday night's normal monthly council meeting. Among the more controversial issues discussed was the new tree ordinance the borough planning commission has recommended the council adopt.
The planning commission has been working on an environmental protection ordinance for the borough for the better part of 5 years. Much of that time, borough planners worked with little direction from or communication with the borough council. The result was an initial proposed ordinance that area builders and real estate professionals called the most restrictive in existence. The council rejected that initial ordinance and sent the job back to the planners with instructions to come up with something that would put fewer restrictions on residents' property rights.
Along with that mandate came the promise that better lines of communication would exist between the council and the borough's planners. Councilman John McGuire took a seat on the commission and began working with planners about two years ago. Over the past few months, the proposal has been coming into focus and the council is set to vote on it later this week.
The new ordinance says that a landowner wishing to clear forested land for a home on a lot up to 1 acre in size can remove trees on up to three-quarters of an acre for a house, well, septic and driveway. On any additional land the owner holds over 1 acre, up to 50% of the forested land can be cleared. McGuire said that planners worked hard to determine how much land was required for a typical home and came up with the .75 acre amount. They felt that clearing up to half of the remaining land was a minimum protective measure, with every member of the planning commission wishing the ordinance was stronger.
While forested land is defined in the ordinance as any area where trees at least 6 inches in diameter grow at least chest high, clearing is not defined in the ordinance, leading some council members to worry that the ordinance would require too much interpretation on the part of the borough zoning officer, who is tasked with enforcing it.
Council members were having a difficult time agreeing on the ordinance at the workshop on Tuesday night. Councilman Gregory Strubinger said he was against any ordinance that restricted the rights of residents to do what they wanted with property they owned. Others, like McGuire and councilman Joseph Marzen felt that the ordinance as written put few restrictions on land owners and would not be used except in cases where neighboring landowners were impacted by another's actions.
After more than 30 minutes of discussion, the council had not reached a consensus on the issue and council president Justin Yaich said it would come to a vote on Thursday night. He urged anyone who wished to speak on the issue to prepare their remarks and plan to speak only once on the issue.
"I don't want to have a lot of going back and forth on this," he said. "We'll vote and if it passes, fine. If not, we can talk about how to fix it or it will die."
Yaich urged anyone who planned to vote against the ordinance to think about ways to make it workable. McGuire said that if the ordinance does not pass, the borough's planners are unlikely to revisit it.