PEABODY — Months after cutting down nearly 700 trees on its property without prior notice, the Salem Country Club is heading to court over what it contends is an “excessive” and “unreasonable and punitive” enforcement order from the Peabody Conservation Commission.
In a complaint filed Wednesday afternoon in Salem Superior Court, the Peabody club is asking a judge to overrule the commission’s enforcement order to re-plant hundreds of trees in areas of the golf course where the club had taken them down to improve airflow and sunlight.
The complaint also goes on to say that the commission wants the club to plant hundreds more trees than were taken down, and that it has brought up what it believes are irrelevant issues, such as past violations by the club and climate change, as justification for the order.
It’s the latest development in an unusually heated public dispute that has received widespread attention in the golf community.
Salem Country Club, which is on Forest Avenue in Peabody, had obtained permission to remove 20 trees late last year as part of the renovation of its course.
But after residents of the area began calling the city to ask about the tree removal, officials discovered that hundreds of trees had been cut down.
The discovery led to a cease and desist order and a series of discussions during Conservation Commission meetings.
Commissioners have publicly expressed their anger over the club’s actions, with several commissioners openly accusing the club’s officials of misleading them.
In May, the commission became aware of additional work that was described in a Salem News golf column from January.
The club’s owners acknowledged in commission meetings that approximately 225 of the trees, mostly oak and pine, were in areas that fall within the commission’s jurisdiction because they were located within 100 feet from wetlands resource areas — but insist they did not believe prior approval was required because the areas had been maintained — such as grass being mowed or fertilized or branches being trimmed.
The club has also acknowledged a dozen trees or other vegetation being removed from the edge of a wetland near the eighth hole fairway and from the bank of an irrigation pond near the second hole tee. It has also agreed to pay for a mitigation plan and for the city to hire an independent expert to review that plan.
But the club’s management said it believes it had the right to take down some 450 other trees that were outside of areas where the commission has jurisdiction.
The removal of such a large number of trees from an area that the city has considered to be open space also ranked some city councilors, who went as far as suggesting the club could lose its 75% tax abatement as a result of the work.
In its complaint, however, the club says it was simply trying to bring the course back to its original early-20th century glory — and the discussion of requiring re-planting of trees in the same locations would undo that.
It also suggested that the idea of requiring the club to plant three or four trees for each removed tree was “arbitrary.”
“The (Salem Country Club) engaged the services of a golf course architect to identify a program of activities that would restore key features of the golf course designed by renowned golf course designer, Donald Ross, and to improve modern agronomic management of the course, ” the club said in its lawsuit.
It says a “central element” of that restoration plan was the removal of large trees, from “specific areas” of the course to improve air circulation and sunlight.
But the commission found that many of those areas were within wetlands resource buffer zones, and also found additional vegetation that was removed within wetlands areas themselves.
The total number of trees removed from the club’s property is believed to be 683, but most fell outside areas where the commission has any jurisdiction.
The club’s management also says in the complaint that since the enforcement order was issued in May it has hired its own experts who have concluded that the removal of trees did not adversely affect wildlife, wildlife habitats, or wetlands on the property.
The city had not been served on Thursday and was not aware of the court filing until a Salem News reporter reached out for comment.
Court records show the club’s lawyer, Barry Fogel, also requested that the case be placed on an accelerated track, which would move the case more quickly than typical civil court cases.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis