PEABODY — Members of the Conservation Commission spared no words Wednesday in unloading on the management of the Salem Country Club for cutting down more than 600 trees — many of them in protected areas — during a winter-long renovation project.
The $3.5-million course-renovation project began last fall. After the commission began fielding complaints about the work, an on-site inspection was performed. Numerous jurisdictional and wetlands violations were found, and the city issued a cease-and-desist order on the project.
During a Zoom meeting Wednesday night, commission members blasted representatives from both the club and the firm that planned out the renovations, charging it blatantly sidestepped parameters it had set forth.
According to figures presented by the club, 685 trees were cut down over the winter, 70 percent of them outside the jurisdictional area and 116 in areas maintained by the club.
SCC General Manager Peter Fischl explained that as trees age, they encroach more and more on existing grass, including greens and fairways. Only by cutting them down will the areas remain playable in the future,” he said.
The club and the commission have agreed to a walkthrough of the course Monday afternoon, not only to see for themselves what areas are off-limits from future work, but to find out if any debris from the work already done can be removed. It was left there when the cease-and-desist order was issued.
“We take full responsibility for the work to remove trees and other work,” Fischl said. “We have become aware that the removal of some trees should not have been done without your approval. We want to discuss restitution so that we can proceed.”
Fischl’s remarks did not mollify commission members at all.
“We’ve been here before,” said commission Vice Chair Michael Rizzo. “This is what you do. This is your MO. You go and do all this work, knowing you’re in resource areas. There’s no excuse for what you did, that you didn’t come to us, or call us, just to walk the site.
“You people know what’s jurisdictional,” Rizzo said. “You know our bylaws. This happens time and time again. You folks should be ashamed.”
Rizzo said that he thinks fines should be assessed at $300 per tree, and enforced retroactively.
“This is painful that we have to be here tonight, doing this,” he said.
Commissioner Arthur Athas expressed disbelief that the club could cut down more than 600 trees and not know what the laws were governing removal of them.
“I can’t imagine it’s recent,” he said.
Commissioner Bruce Comak said that the club’s actions over the winter were a mockery of wetlands-protection laws, and so was Salem’s attempt to mollify the commission by being proactive about atoning for the offense.
“Every time you come here and get forgiveness; that’s not right,” he said. “Not right.”
Saying he was an avid golfer himself, Comak said that of anyone on the commission, “I’m probably the guy who’s going to be more on your side than anyone. If you’d just come to us and asked us if you could cut trees down that are in the maintained areas, we’d probably have said ‘go ahead, cut them.’ You got the permits to do the work you said you were going to do. You somehow forgot to tell us about the rest of it. That’s not right.”
Commission Secretary Michael Vivaldi said this is the second time in three years that Salem Country Club has run afoul of the city’s environmental regulations in trying to maintain the course.
“It’s completely shameful,” he said. “There will definitely be fines.”
City Councilor Anne Manning-Martin indicated that she was ready to ask the city to rescind the 75-percent property-tax abatement it allows the club.
In a blistering rebuke aimed at representatives of the club, she said, “ignorance of the law is no excuse, and, in this case, it is not believable.
“Since 1983, Salem Country Club has been granted a 75-percent discount on the property taxes, amounting to a break of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They apply for this annually.
“But state law demands a plan (for something like this), and there was no plan. Such a plan would have spared centuries-old, and healthy trees from being cut down. Given their … discount, I consider Salem Country Club a guest of homeowners and taxpayers. And I have already asked the city to examine whether Salem has forfeited its 75-percent discount, as I believe it has.”
Peabody resident Sudi Smoller said she has been active with Breathe Clean North Shore and is very concerned about climate change. She said originally SCC stated it was going to remove 40 trees and “replant” two trees for every one that was cut down.
“We were then told that they cut down 205 trees, which means they have to replace 410 trees, which isn’t enough. It should be greater than that,” Smoller said. “And now we learn they cut down 685. We have to start thinking about carbon capture. You can’t just cut trees down because grass won’t grow (on a golf course).”