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Town Considers Amendments To Tree Removal Ordinance

Environmentalists attend meeting to be sure change is needed

Amendments to the code of the Town of Oyster Bay were discussed at the Tuesday, Aug. 14, town board meeting. They included regulations pertaining to the growing of bamboo on both residential and commercial property (see article on page 10), storm water management and erosion and sediment control, and the removal of trees on private property.

Local environmentalists were concerned when the word “repeal” was used in discussing the tree ordinance. Richard Weir, a lifelong resident of the town and a horticultural educator, said he took the day off to express his concerns. He applauded the town on the current tree ordinance and the fact that they for 24 years they have earned the distinction of being a Tree City USA, which is dependent on having a tree ordinance. He said, “The ordinance is quite good. It is impressive and understandable. It is not written in legalese.” He added that when people want to cut down trees they are willing to pay the fines. He said, “There are instances where people are willing to pay several thousands of dollars in fines with no qualms — they wanted the trees down no matter what.”

Mr. Weir said, “I’m not sure we really need a new tree ordinance.”

In 2011 there were 1,567 applications made to the town for tree removal which at a possible $75 a permit would create a revenue of $117,525. This year so far there have been 806. Each application involves the work of the Tree Department Deputy Commissioner, an inspector and a secretary.

Government Intrusion

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto opened the hearing by explaining the town’s decision that the law as stated was burdensome and needed balance. He said, “Trees are probably the most visible symbols of our suburban quality of life.” The supervisor explained the law was intended to protect the tree population but that when it was instituted they didn’t hear the other side of the story. Now the board members are hearing from residents who are saying, “Who are you to come into my backyard and say I can’t remove a tree.” He said homeowners viewed it as a loss of their individual rights and called it “government intrusion.” After listening to many speakers who seemed to understand his views, he said, “It’s a question of balance.” Mr. Venditto said it was the homeowner dealing with trees on their private property that were the ones the repeal of the ordinance would benefit.

Still the possibility of repealing a tree ordinance reminds people of why they wanted one in the first place. Nassau County Legislator Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury) was the first to speak. She reminded the audience that, “The initial tree ordinance was passed in 1973 following the total destruction of a 15-acre parcel of land in Woodbury which was bull dozed by a developer, Sidney Kalvar, who was denied an application for zoning on the property.  Hundreds of trees were just leveled and a barren piece of land replaced the natural growth which was there.”

In 2007, an amendment to the town’s 1973 tree ordinance was adopted as a result of the work of Save the Jewel By the Bay which was working to protect the hamlet of Oyster Bay from an onslaught of “McMansions.” The town added to the tree ordinance as well as adopting several zoning ordinances to prevent McMansions; both ordinances were adopted townwide.

Permit Process

The 2007 tree ordinance requires residents to obtain a permit to cut down a tree. It had to be determined if the tree needed to be cut down and to pay a fee of no more than $75 for the needed permit.

Legislator Jacobs said at town hall, “The proactive position taken by the Town and civics in 1973 was way before its time and that “to now repeal the tree ordinance, in its entirety was going from being modern in 1973 to being behind the times in 2012.”

Ms. Jacobs cautioned the board to review this action carefully, use the time until Sept. 4th to gather information, to consider leaving the 1973 ordinance, as written, in place and, “by all means do not leave the town without a tree ordinance.”  She added, “If we all agree that trees are the visible symbols of our life in Oyster Bay, let’s not forget to protect them.”

In conclusion Ms. Jacobs said, “I am here, today, due to my concern in 1973 as a civic leader and the knowledge I have gained as an environmentalist for over 30 years and a legislator in the last 17 years.    While other municipalities are going greener and greener everyday, there should be no reason that Oyster Bay leaves us open to more blacktop and cement. I am confident that you will do the right thing.” She added that residents of the town approved both a town and county  environmental bond acts indicating how positive the feelings of the residents are in terms of the environment.

Personal Experience

Fieldstone resident Donald Zoeller gave an example of the tree ordinance not working. He said one of the homeowners in Fieldstone Estates was concerned about a huge oak tree that appeared to be a problem and worthy of being cut down. He applied to the town for permission to cut it down and was denied permission. Three weeks later the tree crashed onto the workroom of the house. Luckily no one was there at the time. “It disrupted their lives,” said Mr. Zoeller.

The question of the value of trees he said was based on the value of the trees vs. the value of human beings and it called for a compromise. “If a tree leans over a roadway or a house or a child’s play area,” it should be judged differently. The law needs balance, he said. “Protect humans, and where you can, protect trees.”

Save The Jewel By The Bay

“That is exactly what we want to do; it is where we are and where we need to be,” said Supervisor Venditto. He introduced Ben Jankowski, as one of the founders of Save the Jewel by the  Bay (SJBB), and one of the movers and shakers of the 2007 tree ordinance. Mr. Jankowski said the reason for the law was to stop the wanton destruction of the landscape of the historic hamlet by updating their existing tree ordinance. He said trees are a town resource, enhance property values and protect the ecosystem of this watershed area: trees produce oxygen and absorb stormwater. He said, “If there is no tree ordinance, it is open season on their removal.”

When trees are diseased and need to be removed — replant another, he said. He said SJBB is willing to work on an amendment to the ordinance, not its total removal. “We need to craft appropriate legislation,” said Mr. Jankowski.

Robert de Giacomo of Hicksville described himself as a “tree hugger,” and said to remain a Tree City USA, the town has to have a tree ordinance and asked if the fee for removal can be waived if a new tree is planted.

“We are not going to leave the town without a tree ordinance,” Mr. Venditto assured him, but explained the impetus for a change saying, “In Massapequa, a permit for removal was denied because of community opposition and a tree branch fell and struck a 3-year old who fortunately was not injured.”

Carol Meschkow of the Concerned Citizens of the Plainview/Old Bethpage Community said “ditto” to the previous speakers, and said she understood the ordinance would be changed, not eliminated. She approved of the fact that another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 4.

“Modify the ordinance. Do not leave us exposed without trees. In Plainview, Charles Wang owns 146 acres of which 93 acres are woodland [treed].” She added in a telephone interview that, “This is the largest pristine tract left in Nassau County. It was not protected since it was municipally held and it was believed it would never leave county hands. Mr. Wang purchased the land while Tom Suozzi was in office. It was transferred with covenants and restrictions but I’m deeply concerned about those over 100 trees there.”

Ms. Meschkow said it is a concern for everyone in the Town of Oyster Bay. “There are really no barriers. We are all neighbors, we care and share with everyone. The town has done a great job with Arbor Day recognition and with its tree ordinance.”

Ms. Meschkow commented later in a phone interview, “When I started to reach out to people, they didn’t know the ordinance was there, and were delighted to see it, so who are the people complaining? I think a lot of people if asked would say they want the ordinance.

“I walked away from the meeting feeling very pleased to know that we still have a strong commitment in the Town of Oyster Bay with civics and residents who did come down to speak. You never know on an issue how many people will turn up to speak.”

At the meeting, Ms. Meschkow read a letter from Wendy Berkowitz who grew up on a tree-lined Lillian Lane only to return to see no trees. She chose to live on another area that is treed. On that new street, seven trees were taken down on a piece of residential property, and it broke her heart, said Ms. Meschkow. “Perhaps the new people would have wanted them.”

Muttontown Experience

A general concern of residents is that often, new people buy into an area and immediately cut down trees, which changes the character of the area. This type of incident led the Village of Muttontown to create a stronger approach to trees. Currently, requests for tree removal are heard by the board of trustees at a meeting advertised in advance to inform neighbors. In a case some years ago a resident returned home from a vacation to find their neighbor had taken out several trees bordering her property. “We felt exposed,” she said. Her neighbor’s trees had become part of the ambiance of her home and were sorely missed.

At the meeting Patrice Benneward of the Glenwood/Glen Head Civic Association, Inc. commented that villages were better able to find ways to maintain their trees. “There needs to be a way to protect individual mature healthy trees and it is reasonable to require replacement trees.”

Mr. Venditto called himself a “passionate tree hugger.” Earlier in the meeting he said he wanted to keep a tree on his property but his wife disagreed and she won the decision.

Richard Weir was the next speaker. He asked how many tree permits had been granted and how many infractions – there were trees taken down without permits. The town did not have an answer. He said the reason for his interest is that the Village of Oyster Bay Cove is considering trying to make their tree ordinance stricter, more like that of Muttontown. He said when a developer buys a large property and comes in and cuts down trees, they are quite willing to pay thousands of dollars in fees for breaking the law.

Watershed Protection

Patricia Aitken, Friends of the Bay executive director, said trees are important to Friends of the Bay, especially in relation to the Oyster Bay/Cold Spring Harbor watershed area. She said many people involved in the original tree ordinance in 2007 would be delighted to work with the town again. She thanked Ben Jankowski for alerting people to the town’s desire to change the ordinance.

The final speaker was Locust Valley resident Lynn Knickman who said she was in favor is retaining the ordinance. “To me, greenery is part of living on here. Trees and fences make good neighbors and paying $75 for a permit is okay with me. If a tree is diseased it should be replaced. I think the tree ordinance should be left alone.”

“It’s a question of balance,” said Mr. Venditto, adding that the discussion will continue on Sept. 4 at 10 a.m. in town hall.

Willing To Assist

Several speakers signed in but were unable to stay to speak including Frances Leone, East Norwich Civic Association President Matthew Meng who said he would send a letter to the town, and Lisa Ott, North Shore Land Alliance president who was represented by two of her staff members. Jane Jackson said she appreciated living in Oyster Bay with its treed environment. She stressed the need for native trees and said the NSLA, Oyster Bay-East Norwich Chamber of Commerce, Save the Jewel, and Friends of the Bay were all willing to work with the town to create the new ordinance.

Elizabeth Baldwin, NSLA associate director, said she comes from East Hampton that now has a lot of environmental laws. Previously wooded areas were cleared “sidewalk to sidewalk. That is why we have those laws.” She said she would like to be involved in creating the new ordinance, too. Supervisor Venditto asked her for a copy of the East Hampton legislation to be sent to Hal Mayer the town’s environmental consultant.

Laura Schultz of the Citizens for a More Beautiful Syosset suggested a proactive incentive to plant trees to be part of the new ordinance. She said in the recent work on Jackson Avenue improvement individual property owners had to request trees. “Create an incentive for planting trees, reward people for doing something good,” she said.

Other Ordinances

Town Deputy Attorney Karen Underwood explained that the several code changes on the resolution would modernize and update the codes that presently exist.   

Carol Meschkow asked about the new drive through ordinance. Hal Mayer, environmental consultant said previously they needed a special use permit, which meant a town board hearing. Now they will be permitted on new applications and will have the needed covenants and restrictions called for when creating drive-through areas. It is not for existing businesses.

She asked about the change in places of assembly and Mr. Mayer explained 75 was the limit but added, “There was no science to it.” It involved square footage and maximum capacity and now they are increasing the number to 80 as long as that follows the requirements of the location. “We are streamlining not relaxing ordinances,” he said.

Patrice Benneward of the Glenwood Landing Civic Association asked about the change in building height ordinance. Mr. Mayer explained it was a change to measure height at the mid-level of a peaked roof. The intention is to prevent McMansions that were able to raise their roofs by their interpretation of the measurements for roof height. Somehow roofs that were supposed to be no more than 28 feet raised to 35 feet, said Supervisor Venditto.

Another change Ms. Benneward questioned regarded what was explained as moving a part of the code to an environmental place where it would fit better. “The process was too loose and not centralized,” said Mr. Venditto. She commented that it was easy to find when separated.

The amendments, including the tree ordinance, will be up for discussion again at the Sept. 4 meeting of the town board.