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Efforts to Preserve Scarsdale's Tree Canopy Continue

birchThis Tuesday, in a well-attended meeting of the Law and Sustainability Committees of the Scarsdale Board of Trustees (BOT), village officials and residents continued the review and discussion of proposed revisions to the village's code on trees, grass, brush and weed.

The Friends of the Scarsdale Parks (FOSP) and the Conservation Advisory Council (CAC), alarmed by the high rate of tree removal in the village, petitioned the BOT to preserve our "village in a park" by amending the current tree law. In turn, the village established a working group of FOSP, CAC and village staff members to clarify village tree preservation goals and develop proposed amendments to existing code.

As explained by Assistant Village Manager Ingrid Richards, the group felt any modifications to current code should clearly convey the importance of trees to Scarsdale's ecosystem, increase the number of protected trees as well as the number of replacement trees planted, and provide additional funding for the planting of trees in the village right of way and public parks.

Specific amendments include increasing the number of protected trees from three to 21 (aligning with the New York State Department of Conservation endangered list) and requiring a replacement tree for any tree measuring at least 24" in diameter at breast height (DBH) that is removed. The current code requires replacement for trees measuring at least 36" DBH. In addition, replacement trees will be required for every "aggregate" 24" of DBH removed within a 12-month period (e.g., three trees measuring 6" DBH or more). Further, a permit will be required for any tree removed that measures 6" DBH or greater; the current code requires a permit for every third tree measured 6" DBH or more. A permit also will be required for removal of six or more small caliper trees, such as hawthorn, crabapple, redbud and birch, as they are deemed important to preserve but do not reach the 6" threshold.

To provide additional funding for village tree planting, the village will charge a fee when a tree is removed, but not replaced. The fees will be placed in a tree preservation fund for plantings in village right of way and parks.

From January 1 through October 29, 2017, 741 trees were removed throughout Scarsdale. Under current law, the village required only 38 replacement trees to be planted. When taking the proposed amendments into account, the village would have required 412 replacement trees instead. (However, it is important to note that the Scarsdale Engineering Department routinely makes recommendations for more replacements, but most are not mandatory. Over the same time period, the department recommended that 238 replacement trees be planted).

As Richards presented the working group's recommendations, it became clear that the proposed code changes would have the greatest impact on developers who often remove dozens of trees for a new construction project. From January 1 through October 29, 2017, the village received applications to remove 345 trees due to new residential construction. The existing law required seven replacement trees; the proposed amendments would require 172 replacements.

Of course, individual homeowners who remove trees because they are diseased, dead or hazardous, or due to landscaping changes, new additions or renovations also will be impacted, albeit on a smaller scale. During the first 10 months of 2017, residents filed 29 applications to remove 111 trees due to landscaping changes/new landscape plans; the current code provided for seven replacement trees; the proposed amendments would provide for 55 replacements.

The presentation was followed by a spirited discussion that focused the administration of the new requirements, and the need to balance tree preservation and the rights of property owners.

Trustee Marc Samwick raised concerns about the administrative effort required to enforce the proposed revisions, and asked if there were neighboring communities with similar programs that could be researched for best practices. Village Manager Steve Pappalardo anticipated that the code revisions would account for approximately 150 hours of staff time over the course of a year and said he was confident that the new policy could be effectively managed.

Scarsdale Trustee Seth Ross questioned if other communities use a similar "aggregate" approach in requiring tree replacement. While it appears that no neighboring municipalities utilize such a plan, many have lower DBH thresholds to preserve more trees. Ron Schulof, a representative of the CAC, explained that tree preservation policies vary widely from community to community. "In the extreme, some communities have the BAR equivalent for trees. You want to take a tree down, there's a village committee that goes out and looks at the tree. When we thought about this, we considered the extremes and the middle." He continued, "Imagine a home with 10 23.5-inch trees that come down. Without aggregate, (the homeowners) don't have a single required replacement. They may replace them, but this code ensures that everyone does their part. "

Trustee Samwick also raised the possibility of increased costs for homeowners. "We have to be very cognizant that this is putting a potential financial hardship on homeowners," he said. The aggregate approach could adversely affect a homeowner who doesn't want to remove trees, but needs to do so due to disease. In addition to the removal cost, the homeowner may need to pay permit fees and assume additional costs of planting required replacement trees.

In addressing the board's questons, Lee Fischman, representing the CAC stated, "We worked with staff to make sure this was implementable and that it wasn't too great a burden for staff... that's why they feel comfortable. (Further,) proportionality is built into this. A lot of the problem we have in the village is clear-cutting; it's not individual homeowners who want to take down one or two trees because they have to... Most people won't have to deal with (excessive costs)."

The discussion continued with a number of comments for and against the proposed revisions. Resident Linda Killian was concerned about the effects of the amended ordinance on the existing tree population. "We should be concerned about tree removal, yes... but these trees are aging and we are seeing a lot of these trees coming down. Perhaps what we should be talking about is a better tree removal policy of some of these diseased trees."

Resident Bob Berg asked, "How do we know there's a problem with trees being cut down here that outweighs all the other problems that the trees actually cause in town?" He continued, "If you want to increase the tree count, why don't we focus on public parks and lands? You're intruding on private property rights here... You have to weigh the cost of having a tree canopy in an overdeveloped, densely populated area with the benefits the trees obviously provide. It's not a simple one-sided approach, which this law seems to suggest."

Resident Lisa Beck stated, "There are two very separate concerns here. There's a concern about sick trees, dangerous trees that can endanger us, but we choose to live in the suburbs and that's part of the benefit of the trees that surround us." She continued, "I think people have done a lot of work on these amendments. In my research, I've looked a number of neighboring statues and they require different things... more specific things. I do want to offer that there are other ways of doing this."

Greg Schwinn of Edgewood, was concerned about the "overreach of this law for me as a private property owner. We want to maintain our properties... leave it to us to decide what we're going to do about tree replacement. We already live in a neighborhood with trees, we appreciate them and are going to take appropriate steps. Focus the efforts on new development."

Lisa Beck concluded, "I understand your concerns, but if you continue to take 700-plus trees down each year, and replace them with less than 40, imagine what this village will look like."

Due to the questions and issues raised at the meeting, it was decided that the working group would review feedback and collect additional comments from the BOT and the public. Another meeting will be scheduled to discuss any relevant revisions to the current proposal.

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