Samih Shinway said he knew something was wrong when the brum-brum of chain saws began ringing a little too close to his New Jersey home, followed by the thump-thump of falling trees.
That Feb. 27 afternoon, the 40-year-old father of three took his four-wheeler up the steep hill on his seven-acre property and saw “something I just couldn’t believe,” he said: There, where a lush grove of hickories, maples, birches, oaks and other native tree species once stood, only a mess of stumps, branches and wood remained.
Standing beside the chopped-down trees, a crew of workers claimed they had been hired by a neighbor to clear approximately 32 trees on Shinway’s property – allegedly to make way for a better view of the valley and the skyline of New York City, some 35 miles east, he said the workers told him.
Now, Shinway’s neighbor, Grant Haber, is accused of violating municipal ordinances regarding tree removal and trespassing, according to a borough official. Per the local code, he could face fines of up to $32,000, as well as steep costs associated with replacing the trees. According to NorthJersey.com, Kinnelon Borough is also fining the contractors involved.
In an email to The Washington Post, Haber’s attorney Matthew Mueller declined to comment on the matter. The next hearing is scheduled for July 18 in municipal court.
The feud – like many between neighbors – is, at its core, a spat over property rights. But trees “are an endless source of dispute,” according to Bruce Huber, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, and the case quickly rippled from Shinway’s Kinnelon community onto the internet, where it raked in millions of views, inspired memes and became entertainment for many.
@kateisawkward This happened back in March but the trial just got underway. I am firmly #TeamShinway over here 🌳 #neighborfromhell #Drama #Trees #TreeTok #NewJersey ♬ original sound – Kate
Shinway, a “non-social-media person,” told The Post he believes the attention snowballed from a Twitter thread someone posted about the situation on June 26. The drama eventually made its way to TikTok. The next day, June 27, hundreds of people tried to attend a Zoom hearing in the case.
“I couldn’t even get in at first. So many people logged in that the prosecutor couldn’t even get in either,” Shinway said. To him, that cemented “why this case is important: It’s not just about protecting what we own but also about protecting trees.”
Trees and plants have always been a part of Shinway’s life. As a fourth-grader, he tended his own garden. When he got to college, his plans for a career in landscape architecture morphed into a degree in business and land economics. Four years ago, the bounty of trees and wildlife surrounding the New Jersey home inspired him and his family to move there.
Since 2019, Shinway said, he has gone to great lengths to take care of his tree-filled land, nipping out invasive species and enrolling in a local woodland management program, which helps the state’s private landowners maintain their wildlife habitat, promote its biodiversity and prevent wildfires. But all that work appeared to come crashing down this winter when crews allegedly hired by Haber walked onto Shinway’s property and cut down dozens of trees ranging in age from 20 to 150 years old.
On some of the trees, Shinway said, there were bright yellow signs highlighting the area as private property and warning against trespassing – posters he put up two years ago as part of the woodland management program.
John Linson, the arborist in charge of protecting and maintaining the borough’s forests, was called in to assess the damage. He said he found 32 trees were removed without a permit, which is a violation of the borough’s code. Overall, Linson issued 96 violations – 32 to Haber, 32 to his contractor and 32 to a subcontractor, Shinway said.
Under Kinnelon Borough law, removing trees without a permit is subject to a fine of up to $1,000 per tree. Additionally, the code stipulates that violators must replace the chopped-down trees with “another of like or superior species” at their own expense – and “replacement trees must be guaranteed for two full growing seasons.”
Shinway said a private landscaping company he hired put the replacement costs at about $1.4 million, given the maturity of the trees that must now be replaced and the fact that Shinway’s yard is difficult to access and navigate.
Huber, the law professor, called trees “a surprisingly fertile area of litigation.” Because trees often grow across property lines or have branches and roots stretching between properties, they’re a common source of disputes, he said. Generally, by law, if a tree’s trunk is entirely on one person’s property, that person owns the tree. But, “you are perfectly entitled to cut any limbs that extend over your property,” Huber added.
“As long as it’s over your land, you can do whatever you want,” he said. “But when it comes to crossing over your land and to the other guy’s, that’s when the problems begin, like in this case.”
The attention over his tree dispute, Shinway said, has been the most heartening part of an ordeal that left his beloved woodlands looking like “a war zone” of tree carcasses. Since his case started making headlines, Shinway said, other homeowners have reached out with similar stories about alleged property encroachment – but with no resolution.
“There’s little recourse generally for incidents like this,” Shinway said. “And that’s why I think so many people relate to the story. But I also think it’s part of a bigger conversation: Trees are so important to the environment, yet they get illegally cut. We need to protect them, so I hope that it draws more attention towards it.”