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Judge lets trees stand for now

EAST BRUNSWICK: Mother Nature and a Middlesex County Superior Court judge combined yesterday to reprieve a score of shade trees on Timber Road and nearby streets.

Heavy winds and the threat of storms likely kept power saws quiet before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Amy Chambers issued a temporary restraining order last evening that bars Houston-based Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Corp. from shearing the trees on its easement.

The parties will return to court Dec. 9 to face three possible outcomes: the dissolution of the restraining order, its permanence, or, if Chambers finds that too many facts are in dispute, a trial.

Frank Marcello, who has lived on Timber Road 30 years, said he felt "very violated" by Transco's actions.

"I feel a lot better right now," he said last night. "At least we're going to be heard."

Transco said it needed to cut the trees to monitor and facilitate access to the portion of the 2,000-mile natural-gas pipeline that runs through the neighborhood.

Residents on the tree-lined streets doubted Transco's security contention and expressed qualms about property values because of the tree cutting. They hired Steven D. Cahn, an Edison -based attorney and Piscataway councilman, and his law partner, Harold Parra.

Cahn and Parra represented several Piscataway residents during four years of litigation in a similar case. A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of those residents last month.

"We won round one," Cahn said. "If we'd lost round one, there's no round two."

Transco representatives could not be reached for comment last night.

Cahn said he had a sense of "déjà vu," given the striking similarities between this case and the Piscataway case.

"The cases are very similar," he said. "The basic facts seem to be the same."

One substantial difference, Cahn said, is that East Brunswick has agreed to join the case as a plaintiff. Cahn said that from "a legal, technical standpoint," the easement is on the township's right of way.

With the township on board as plaintiff, Cahn said the East Brunswick claim could be even stronger than Piscataway's.

"The township still believes that those trees are not necessarily part of the problem, and for the quality of life of those residents the township is going to join the cause to try and protect their streets from being destroyed," Mayor William Neary said last night.

In the Piscataway case, two Texas-based companies said that shade trees on Fountain Avenue made aerial surveillance of natural-gas pipelines there difficult and also prevented access in case of an emergency. They also said that the trees' roots could cause damage to the pipelines.

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed those concerns, ruling that although aerial surveillance might be the most efficient method to assess the pipelines, it wasn't the only way, especially since the defendants have an office just a few miles away.

The judge also noted that the defendants had not shown they couldn't access the pipelines in an emergency or that the tree roots posed any danger.

Home News Tribune
by Richard Khavkine - October 26, 2005

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