This week's email is long, but I think it's worth the read.
Livin' La Vida Luna y Luca
The kids woke up a little early so we decided to hit up Sunday Motor Co Cafe before school on Thursday.
🌲Tree Huggers vs. A Professional Problem Solver
We've all heard that saying when taking on a new venture: "Double your budget and double your timeline."
You never know how or when these surprise costs or delays will present themselves, but they always come.
An Unexpected Phone Call
This story starts with a phone call from my builder on Thursday, Oct 27th.
The crane operator on our new construction project is saying he can't drop the foundation walls into the hole we dug because there is a large tree perfectly in the way.
Furthermore, the tree doesn't belong to us. It's on public property (a grass patch between the sidewalk and the street).
- Make the tree disappear on a Sunday morning.
- Apply for a permit to take the tree down.
- Change to a poured concrete foundation.
Option 1 was the quickest, but also the riskiest option. One phone call and $1,000 cash would make that tree disappear the next morning.
Option 2 was the "right thing to do", but could also open up a can of worms.
Option 3 was completely out of the question.
Changing the foundation from Superior Walls to Poured Concrete requires redrawing the plans and resubmitting for updated permits.
It would take too long, and I already made a $5,000 deposit with the Superior Walls vendor that I likely wouldn't get back.
I really wanted to take Option 1: Just make the tree disappear and keep it moving.
But I Googled: "Penalty for removing tree without permit + Chatham, NJ" and did not like what I saw.
- Cutting Down Trees Could Cost Chatham Property Owner $25K
- Enforcement Officer may issue a stop-work order for any tree work or other activity which he/she believes to be in violation of this chapter.
- Chatham Township Resident Fined $10,000 in Court for Clearing of Trees
Although I may not get caught, these penalties are way too high of a price to pay if I did.
So I decided to take Option 2 instead.
The very next day (Friday, Oct 29th), we applied for a Tree Removal Permit.
On Wednesday, November 2nd, we received the following email.
They said they'll get back to us in 5 business days.
After a few follow-up emails, we received their decision on Friday, November 11th (7 business days later).
They said No! We can't take the tree down.
Not only that, but we also have to "protect" the tree with perimeter fencing. This is not good.
Where There's a Will There's a Way.
I decided on an angle and replied:
- The tree won't survive the heavy toll of new construction
- The new driveway will surely damage the roots of the tree
- My kids will play in the front yard with this potentially dead-rooted tree hanging over their heads.
Here is the attachment I included showing the new driveway coming extremely close to the tree.
I didn't hear back on Friday so I followed up again on Monday with a concession.
I offered to pay for the replanting of 2 trees. Each tree costs $350.
Pick Up The Phone
On Tuesday, Nov 15, I escalated to calling the town.
I first spoke to the Department of Public Works. These are the people who accept applications for tree removal.
They said, "that tree is out of our jurisdiction. It's totally up to the Shade Tree Commission. You have to take it up with them."
I hung up and called back. This time I spoke with the Township Clerk. After telling her the story I asked, "Who can help me? Or how can I help myself?"
"There's a Shade Tree Commission meeting this Thursday night at 730pm. It's open to the public. You can try to talk to them there."
Shade Tree Commission Meeting
I practiced my pitch all day and nailed it.
"Hello everyone. My name is Sunny Shakhawala, and I'm the proud owner of 39 XXXXXX Avenue here in Chatham. We have approved plans to build a new construction single-family home and we've made good progress until recently. We cannot move forward with installing our foundation because of the Maple Tree that sits at the front of our lot. My family, who are all eager to be your new neighbors, humbly request permission to remove this tree so we can continue building our future home. If permission is granted, we are prepared to donate $700 to the Shade Tree Commission's replanting efforts, and we hope at least one of these trees will thrive in front of our new home."
In addition to my pitch, I passed out the plans that showed the driveway encroaching on the tree's roots as well as a letter from the foundation company describing the issue.
They smelled fear and pounced.
- Didn't you see the tree when you bought the property?
- Did you not think this would be an issue?
- Who says the tree is actually in the way?
- When did you find out about this problem?
- Why don't you just do another type of foundation?
- You ALREADY removed 6 trees from your private property and you want us to just allow you to take down 1 more of ours?
- Who approved these plans? This new driveway seems awfully close to the tree.
I stayed calm and cool throughout the entire interrogation. When the questions were over, there was a deafening silence in the room.
I stuck my neck out one last time.
"I think everyone here understands the issue. I cannot continue construction as approved without removing this tree. This delay is costing me about $200 per day. From what I'm hearing, it feels a lot like I'm being punished for previously taking down 6 trees on my private property. Would it help if I paid for the replanting of 7 trees? I'm desperate to continue and this seems like a fair concession from both sides."
They didn't give me an answer.
Instead, they thanked me for my time and dismissed me.
They weren't willing to come to a conclusion with me in the room.
I was told to expect an answer by their next meeting, which was a month from now.
I got home and told Dia how the meeting went.
"I did my best, but they didn't give me permission to take it down. Tomorrow, I'll go speak with the construction department and the town administrator to see if they can help me. If that doesn't work, we might actually have to switch to a poured concrete foundation."
She fell asleep quickly after and that's when a wave of self-defeating thoughts washed over me.
- I'm not cut out for development
- I made similar mistakes with the restaurant
- I should have sold this project to someone else when I had the chance
- I'm such a baby. I should have just made the tree disappear and dealt with the consequences if they ever came.
- If I can't make this work - should I just quit?
I berated myself for a good hour before finally being able to fall asleep.
Prepared For Battle
I woke up early the next morning re-invigorated.
I practiced what I was going to say in the shower.
I dressed up extra nice and shaved so I looked more professional.
After breakfast with the kids, I grabbed my phone to check my email.
Oh shit! They sent me an email late last night...
After I left, they decided I can take the tree down. All I had to do was pay for 5 new trees to be planted.
$2,500 is A LOT of money, but I replied instantly asking who the check should be made out to and where could I drop it off.
Days can turn into weeks: Small issues that seem like they can be fixed in a phone call or email can sometimes take weeks to resolve. Shorten the time between stimulus and response by attacking problems immediately. This problem started on Oct 27 and wasn't resolved until Nov 17 (3 weeks).
"No" Often Means "Not Yet": I'm not used to hearing the word no. But when I do, I take it to mean "not yet". I got a No 3 separate times on this issue, but I persisted and continued to come at the problem from different angles.
Gather Support. In my retelling of the story, I didn't mention my dad attended the Shade Tree Commission meeting with me. It was actually his idea to bring a written statement from the foundation company. I think that provided credibility to my argument. Thanks, Dad.
Have a little faith. We had very little reason to remain positive after the Shade Tree Commission meeting. It really seemed like their decision wouldn't go our way. When my dad dropped me off at home, I gave him the stack of papers we went with and told him it was garbage. He put those papers in the prayer room in his house and prayed for a good outcome. When I told him about the email the next morning he admitted he asked my Ba to help me from above.
I'm inclined to believe that she had more to do with their decision than anything I said or did.
Thanks, Ba. I wish you were here so you could see this house when it's done.