To Tree or Not to Tree: BOT Holds Public Hearing on Tree Code Changes

treeremovalIn addition to a visit by Westchester County Executive George Latimer, Tuesday's well-attended board of trustees meeting focused on conservation issues, with a public forum about proposed amendments to the village's tree code, and a resolution to establish enhanced sanitation services with regard to recycling (See accompanying article.)

Trustee Deborah Pekarek opened the public hearing about changes to the village tree code that was last amended in 2009. She invited residents to express their views and provide the board with constructive feedback. "Our guiding principal throughout this process has been to listen, collaborate, deliberate, modify and refine this code."

Community groups and the board have been discussing trees for five now. Many community members have expressed concern about maintaining Scarsdale's "Village in a Park" in a way that would ensure public safety while safeguarding property rights. The proposed amendments to the tree code have been developed and modified by a working group of members of Friends of Scarsdale Parks and Conservation Advisory Council, Scarsdale Village staff and trustees. Four public meetings resulted in additional changes based on residents' comments. Key code changes include:

1) Two trees may be removed in a 24-month period without a fee or permit;

2) Removal of one or more trees with diameter of more than six inches at breast height that are dead, dying, hazardous or diseased, as determined by a tree expert, can be removed with permit, but without a tree replacement requirement;

3) Any tree that must be removed in an emergency situation may be removed immediately without a permit; and,

4) Any 24-inch diameter tree removed must be replaced. Replacement tree may be smaller and planted in a different location.

Trustee Marc Samwick followed Pekarek's comments by stating, "This is an example of a deliberate municipal process. ... (We're) trying to balance property rights with maintaining the character and integrity of our community. " But, as members of the public approached the podium, it became clear that they had a variety of reservations and questions regarding the proposed amendments.

Michael Levine (Walworth Avenue) began public comment by saying, that the language used in the amendments was unclear and did not reflect key changes as described by Pekarek. Samwick responded that there was language in the draft that needed to be clarified. Levine continued, "... two trees per 12 months still makes sense. And, why set any diameter? If a member of the public thinks a tree is too close to power lines or too close to a house... I don't understand reducing the diameter. I don't agree with the diameter limit and I think you should go back to 12 months." Levine also took issue with the "permit" requirement. "It's not consistent with the commitment (made) in January," he said. "The commitment... was that you provide notice, but there was no need for an application, no review by the engineer or anything like that." Samwick responded, "We had a similar comment... whether we call it a notice or permit may be different, we may prefer permit, but an as-of-right, no fee permit. We had the same will be addressed."

Ellen Zweig (Old Orchard Lane) commented, "I think it's important to take into account your property size. Taking down two trees from a third of an acre lot has a much greater environmental impact than taking down two trees from, for example, a five acre lot."
Linda Killian (Forest Lane) said, "Data was presented, and did show that development and remodels drove the majority of (tree) removals... Why are we hitting residents over the head for simply trying to protect their homes and their families? If you put this is in the land use section of the village code, you can directly address development, expansion of homes, tear-downs... But it's not, it's in the tree section of the code, so basically, you're killing residents who want to remove a couple of trees for safety... for the sins of developers." She continued, "And, why would the ordinance as written, seriously curtail tree removal? ...You're not going to be able to do that unless you have heavy fines and restrictions, and heavy fees on tree replacement. Otherwise, a $50 permit isn't going to deter any developer in Scarsdale."

Joelle Campbell (Wayside Lane) stated, "I found that this proposal is extremely restrictive for homeowners... It takes a lot of the rights and considerations away from homeowners. If you're trying to address developers, that's a whole different thing. I think homeowners are, generally, very thoughtful." She also expressed confusion about how the changes were written with regard to diameter restrictions.

Novisi Nirschl (Colvin Road) said, "Based on the text that's been written and the fact that you would require a permit, I think it will slow the removal of trees for homeowners... due to confusion or some type of permit process... If you think that homeowners are very aggressive, that's one thing. It sounds like you think the developers are aggressive. Anything you do to that will slow down pruning, caretaking and prudence, I think you should consider very carefully."

Matthew Miller (Roosevelt Place) commented, "I am a developer, I have taken down many trees in Scarsdale and... it an awful shame when someone has a lot of beautiful trees near their house... Actually, when the engineer spoke about tree replacement, I thought it was a good idea to replace trees if you're taking a lot of trees down... (But) the trees are people's property, not the town's property. Where do the (tree removal) fees go?" Village Manager Steve Pappalardo explained that they are added to a tree preservation fund that is dedicated for tree replacements. Miller continued, "I have a problem with fees for taking down trees... I don't think it's fair for you to charge us to remove our own trees. They are our property. Why do I have to get a permit to cut down my own trees?"

Zoe Berg (Tisdale Road) said, "I'm the last person who wants to remove a healthy tree, but when storm systems barrel through our village and knock out power... it is essential to consider public safety... I would expect that the safety of our residents to be the priority of this administration and... do not believe that residents should be penalized for removing healthy trees on their private property if the residents believe that the tree or trees present a danger to their wellbeing... I encourage the town to consider plant more trees in our plethora of public parks."

Robert Berg (Tisdale Road) stated, "I've been asked to read comments from Tanya Singer, Montrose Road: '...While it appears (in the code) that the Village Engineer is meant to consider the potential hazard presented by a given tree, this language is far too subjective. The hazard presented by a tree is a function of not just its health, but also its size, species, deviation from vertical and proximity to homes. The evaluation of risk is not an exact science... The village must not impose its own, potentially greater, appetite for risk on a homeowner seeking to protect his home from a risk he has deemed unacceptably large.'" Berg then said, "I've been arguing against this law for months now... I pointed out, that in 1926, there was virtually no tree canopy in Scarsdale, as Scarsdale was vacant farmland... You guys are trying to preserve a post- suburbanized tree canopy...these trees are now nearing the end of their natural lives... these trees were planted very close to houses and power lines... and they're dangerous. Homeowners, who have a reasonable fear that their healthy trees are going to come down, should have the right without filing for permits, without paying fees or without having to pay for replacement trees, to take those trees down."

Ellen Zweig returned to the podium to add, "With regard to experts, experts can be wrong... I don't want a town expert coming by to tell me if I can or cannot cut down my tree... We had a tree that was struck by lighting... a tree expert said the tree would be fine. We had a windstorm and the tree came down... We shouldn't be relying on decisions by some expert(s).

Ira Silfin (Continental Road) added, "I haven't encountered anyone who is in favor of this law. When there is one-sided opposition to the law, and no support for the law other than a few conservation (and) tree people, there's a reason there's a feeling that this law is being rammed down our throats. For this to be continuing after months of opposition... it baffles me that this is going on... They're not your trees, they're our trees."

Greg Schwend (Barry Road) concluded the hearing by saying, "When this was introduced, the words 'safety,' 'safeguarding property rights," 'not burdening us with bureaucracy' were brought up, but it appears that the law is in opposition to those principals... What data do we have to support the changes? Is resident behavior driving the need for further restriction? Additionally, the safety concern is one that residents have to take into account on our own... I oppose the law."