Scarsdale's Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) recently announced the findings of their analysis of the Village's Tree Ordinance, enacted in January 2009. The current code requires tree permits for the removal of certain trees as outlined below and the CAC wished to determine if the current law was effective at preserving Scarsdale's canopy. Under the current law, a tree removal permit is required to remove trees that fall into these categories:
- Removal of more that two 2 trees exceeding 6 inches DBH (diameter of a tree trunk measured at 54 inches above the ground) per lot per 12 month period.
- Trees identified to be removed/protected as a result of a Land Use Board determination.
- Removal of replacement trees 6 inches or less in DBH that are planted as a result of a Land Use Board determination or pursuant to Section 281-10.
- Removal of tree(s) determined to be preserved by a Land Use Board for at least 2
- growing seasons after issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy or Land Use Board approval.
Also requiring a permit for removal from the Village Engineer are certain tree species: American Elm, American Beech Tree, designated Heritage trees and any tree in a wetland or wetland buffer area - in accordance with Chapter 171.
Tree(s) on private property may be removed as-of-right provided any of the following:
- Trees 6 inches DBH or less can be removed with no restrictions.
- Removal of up to 2 trees exceeding 6 inches DBH per lot per 12-month period.
- A tree removed that is > 36 inches DBH must be replaced with a replacement tree.
- Actual or ongoing emergency for the protection of life or property.
- For a tree determined to be dead, dying, hazardous or diseased, a report from a Tree Expert must be submitted to the Village Engineer.
- A tree may also be removed if considered an invasive species (listed in the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England).
The CAC's goal was simple enough: how had the current law fared in practice?
What they found is that the Tree Ordinance, specifically its permitting process, is essentially a rubber stamp. While the Ordinance does mandate that any tree larger than 36 inches in diameter that is removed must be replaced, there are otherwise few restrictions on what a landowner can remove from a property. For alterations to a property, such as the addition of a pool or tennis court, landscape approvals are required by land use boards that are most definitely not rubber stamping. All the same, these landscape approvals do not follow a formal standard.
The CAC has produced a reader-friendly report in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, accessible on its site. For their review, the CAC consulted with foresters, developers, staff and others, as well as reviewing the state of neighboring tree ordinances and current best practices. They also surveyed residents to ascertain the community's attitude towards trees in Scarsdale. Here are some highlights from its report:
Numerous irate homeowners came forward to vent their frustration at neighbors' unpermitted removals and clear cutting of properties, so much so that the CAC concluded these misunderstandings may be fairly common.
Since 2009 there has been a steady and pronounced increase in the number of permits being issued.
While permits are granted for properties throughout the Village, they seem to be more concentrated in the Greenacres and Fox Meadow neighborhoods. This may be due to their concentration of older trees.
Violations in the form of unpermitted removals are few and far between, which surprised no one because there is not a strong means to enforce the ordinance.
In 2011 and 2012 the Village removed over 300 trees, while planting only about 160.
Neighboring communities' tree ordinances don't fare much better; in reviewing the tree ordinances of eight mid-Westchester towns other than Scarsdale, the CAC found that those too were "almost useless" due to exemptions.
A survey of residents found support for replacing large trees upon their removal, very strong support against clear cutting lots, and conditional support for notifying neighbors of tree removals. Still, the comments revealed how conflicted feelings about trees. Said one respondent, "I love the trees in our neighborhood and in Scarsdale. But when we bought our house, I had no idea about the damage these trees might cause." Another countered, "I love my neighbor's trees! I look at them every day and I enjoy those in my neighborhood when I go on walks. Some parts of town, however, are looking too much like Queens." Survey results and comments can be viewed online here.
As an advisory committee, the CAC seeks to balance its agenda of maintaining the "Village in a Park" with respect for landowners' property rights and constraints on staff and board resources. Its recommendations for the Tree Ordinance and related activities are:
Amend the tree permit to require that neighbors be notified before a tree is removed; it has been argued that notification without being able to contest a permit is meaningless. The CAC argues that this step would actually make the permit process far more meaningful than it currently is. The simple act of notification is intended to mitigate the confusion, fear and even ignorance it witnessed in conversation with numerous homeowners affected by tree removals. Notification also helps to strengthen the permit process; as currently there is no way of knowing when a tree removal has been permitted or not.
Increase Village planting along the right of way - as residents remove trees from their properties perhaps because of the threat of storms, or because new lifestyles dictate more open land and onsite amenities such as pools, the Village must work harder to maintain its overall canopy. The CAC therefore suggests that more trees be planted on the right of way, as an offset to their inevitable continued loss elsewhere on properties.
Require that developers of new properties plant street trees - as a condition of redevelopment, the CAC recommends that new properties be required to plant one or more suitably large trees on or just inside the right of way. The number of trees would depend on street frontage. Larger trees would be required to offset the greater loss of plantings elsewhere on the property.
For permits associated with land use applications, require satisfaction of one of a set of replacement standards - the CAC surveyed nationwide practices and found a number of standards that could be used. It is recommending that these standards be satisfied in addition to land use board approvals.
If you would like to take the CAC's survey about residents' knowledge and attitude towards trees, it is still available via a link on the home page of Sustainable Scarsdale.com.