Down The Drain

On Tuesday of this week, the Trentonian – the only one of the two newspapers in town that still prints news about Trenton – published a story about an Ordinance that Trenton City Council was due to discuss and consider for 1st Reading at its meeting last night. The Ordinance, #18-24, according to the piece by David Foster, “would require residents to place leaves and grass clippings in a trash can, bucket, bag or container to prevent the yard waste from entering the street or storm drain. If a resident does not obey, they can be fined up to $2,000.”

That got my attention. I live on a property graced and cursed by a LOT of trees. Each year, from August until December, those trees drop an ungodly amount of dead deciuduous matter, which I blow and rake to both curbs (I live on a big corner lot in the West Ward), several times throughout the fall. From there, the City Public Works periodically vacuums them up, as they do all over the city according to a published schedule that the City more or less follows. The prospect, for me as well as many other property owners in the West Ward and elsewhere in the City, of having to deal with a veritable mini-mountain of leaves by bagging them or facing a $2,000 for each violation kind of grabbed my attention.

I went to Council last night and spoke about the proposed Ordinance. My comments are below. On the face of it, and compared to other matters that the City deals with, this seemed like a small, insignificant matter. But, as often happens with anything to do with Trenton, pulling on the little string of this Ordinance unraveled a much bigger ball of municipal yarn. First, my comments. I’ll then relate what came after.

I would like to speak tonight about Proposed Ordinance #18-24, which would establish requirements for the proper handling of Yard Waste.

I am here tonight neither to support nor oppose it, not yet, but to ask several questions.

Namely, why is this needed at the present time? The language of the Ordinance states that this measure is required by New Jersey Administrative Code 7:14A-25.6 to adhere to the requirements of a “Tier A Municipal Stormwater General Permit,” and that “said permit requires the adoption and enforcement of an ordinance to establish requirements for the proper handling of yard waste in the City of Trenton.”

I ask for further information about this because a reading of NJAC 7:14A-25.6 does not contain any reference to “yard waste,” nor to “leaves” nor to “grass clippings,” which is how your Ordinance tonight defines yard waste.

Further, NJAC 7:14A-25.6 refers back to the subsection of the Administrative code discussing the Tier A Municipal Stormwater General  Permit., NJAC 7:14A-24.2. In that particular subsection, Paragraph 9c reads, “The following stormwater discharges are exempt from the requirement to obtain a NJPDES permit” and goes on in subparagraph 9 c 3 to state that some of those exempt discharges are  “Stormwater DGW that are from municipal separate storm sewers, residential areas (including residential streets, parking lots, easements, and open space, commercial areas other than areas of high pollutant loading” as defined elsewhere in the code.”

That sounds like it describes the entire city of Trenton!

So, from this layman’s reading of the legislation on which Ordinance 18-24 relies for its justification, I don’t see where there is a mandate to require the kinds of new restrictions that are under consideration tonight. Can Council please tell me if I’ve missed the relevant mandatory language requiring these measures? I would appreciate it.

So, I will ask again why this Ordinance is needed at the present time? Specifically, I ask why will there be a new requirement to bag ALL yard waste? This will be an onerous obligation to several homeowners, including myself, who annually have to deal with an inundation of leaves from curbside trees, many of which were planted not by previous owners of the property  but by the City of Trenton.

On top of the recent property revaluation that added thousands of dollars to my annual property tax bill, and on top of the ceiling on the deductibility of state and local taxes no in effect thanks to the United States Government, such as it is these days, I cannot but help but consider this proposed ordinance a new tax imposed on me and my neighbors in the West Ward who also have many trees on their property and who have also been screwed by the recent revaluation. Because in all likelihood, I will not be physically able to keep up with all the leaf production on my property, which starts in August,  not tapering off until December, and picking up again in the spring. I will probably have to hire a lawn service to bag leaves, a much more tedious manual; process than the lawn cutting they do for me and many in the Ward right now. The cost of that additional service will be to me nothing less than another tax.

Another question I have is, why will the City require bagged leaves? Looking at two other municipalities in New Jersey, Clifton and Hamilton, I read the following:

From Clifton (261-40):

Sweeping, raking, blowing or otherwise placing yard waste that is not containerized at the curb or along the street is ***allowed during the seven days prior to a scheduled and announced collection and shall not be placed closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet.***

Hamilton (420-28B) has similar language:

Leaves that are not placed in containers described in Subsection A above shall be placed at the curb or pavement edge no more than seven days prior to scheduled collection and no closer than 10 feet from any storm drain inlet.

So, I ask this question as well: Why are open leaf collection – only at specified times tied to scheduled collections-allowed in Hamilton and Clifton, but not in Trenton?

I also ask why the Proposed fine for Violations is so high, at up to $2000 per occurrence. The City’s current Stormwater Ordinance, Chapter 254, allows fines up to $1000 per occurrence, and that is for major violations on “major developments” in the City. Tonight you want to fine homeowners twice that for not bagging leaves?

In the State Code, Section 7:14A-25-6(b) says, “The permittee [the City] shall, at a minimum, comply with applicable state and local public notice requirements when providing for public participation in the development  and implementation of the permittee’s stormwater program. This measure tonight appears to be one of the steps being taken to implement this program. Can you describe the process by which the public participated in its development? I don’t recall any announcements in connection with this initiative.

Also, language in the State statute refers to several deadline dates in 2004 for various actions to be taken. Why has this been delayed until now?

I only became aware of this proposal yesterday, when I read about it in the newspaper. I have heard that yesterday was the first time that some in the Administration, including those who have responsibility for the Department that would be responsible for collection of the yard waste this Ordinance covers. I have not been able to do much research on this matter, but should be able to do better by the second reading, with the additional information I look forward to receiving from Council.

Thank you.

After I spoke, City resident Charlie Leeder also spoke against the proposed Ordinance, stating his belief that this measure would violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, something I hadn’t considered. He told Council that by not including any language in the bill allowing for reasonable accommodations to those disabled and elderly residents physically unable to bag their yard waste, this bill would violate federal law.

After Mr. Leeder’s comments and mine, Council asked Public Works Director Merkle Cherry to answer some of their own questions as well as those raised by us. As is often the case with Mr. Cherry, he seemed to be unprepared and ill-equipped to explain and defend this proposal.

He started off by saying that this Yard Waste Ordinance was one of three measures presented to Council last night. The others were #18-21, “Prohibiting Illicit Connections to the storm sewer system” and #18-23, “Prohibiting the Spilling, Dumping, or Disposal of Materials Other Than Stormwater” to the storm sewers. Those other two measures were passed last night for First Reading, Second Reading and final action scheduled for May 6.

Director Cherry explained how all three of these measures were actually required to comply with US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules, not the State regulations mentioned in the language of the ordinance itself. Well, this kind of confused everyone in the room, especially since Mr. Cherry couldn’t explain what the EPA actually required, and couldn’t say exactly would happen as a result of this proposal were it to pass.

Council President Zachary Chester asked Mr. Cherry if the City would actually discontinue the current practice of vacuuming leaves in the neighborhoods. Mr. Cherry stumbled through an answer that seemed to say both that vacuuming would continue and that it wouldn’t.

Council asked Mr. Cherry what the impact of this proposal would be on Public Works manpower, since the mechanized process of vacuuming loose leaves would be replaced by manual wrangling and disposal of hundreds upon hundreds of separate bags and other containers.Mr. Cherry answered that he thought that, at the very least overtime would jump. He told Council that he should have more information by the time that Council had its Second Reading of the bill prior to approval.

Since Mr. Cherry’s answers were not very informative, and that what he did say seemed to indicate that this whole subject was a bigger and more complicated matter than the very short and poorly-drafted Ordinance indicated, Council seemed disinclined to pass this measure for First Reading at all last night.

It took a few times for Council to get across to Mr. Cherry that this Ordinance as drafted wasn’t going anywhere last night. A motion was made to table the Ordinance – postpone it for further review and re-drafting. It was seconded and passed unanimously.

A little bit later, at another opportunity for public comment, I added to my comments that the Ordinance was very poorly drafted, drawing their attention to the fact that although the first page and a half of the measure discussed and defined things like “yard waste” and “containers,” in the section that actually defined the actions to be prohibited by the new law (Section III) the language seemed copied from another Ordinance, #18-23. This language prohibited “The spilling, dumping, or disposal of materials other than stormwater.” Not a single word in this section about leaves, yard waste or bags. This was very sloppily drafted and edited not at all.

This was a very overly long story, I will admit, showing how this Administration – even now – struggles and fails with seemingly the simplest and least complicated of tasks. In short, they screwed up trying to do something about piles of leaves. I think it’s very likely that had Mr. Leeder and I not made our comments to draw attention to this item, it would have passed unanimously, as the other two related proposals did.

This experience demonstrated to me once again how critically important it is for the public to pay attention to what its local officials are doing and speak up to them. Because way, way too often, they just do not know what they are doing.

I can’t wait for them to be gone.

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