Trustees Approve Tree Code Amendments; Clear Cutting To Be Addressed Later

TreeWmansClubThe Scarsdale Board of Trustees voted unanimously Tuesday to approve proposed amendments to the village tree code, shortly after making yet another change to address residents’ concerns. Homeowners now will be able to remove two trees in a 12-month period, as opposed to 24 months. And, of particular interest, the code permits residents to remove diseased, dying or dead tress without a permit or replacement requirement. The code amendments, however, do not address clear cutting.

As in past hearings, a number of residents expressed support and opposition to the proposed measures. Ron Schulhof (Springdale Road), chair of the Conservation Advisory Council (CAC), began the public comment session by expressing CAC’s support. “Over the last five years, the CAC has examined Scarsdale’s current tree code, measured our tree canopy, listened to community feedback about the importance of trees in our village, researched many municipal tree codes, drafted and discussed various proposals to update the tree code, and worked with Friends of the Scarsdale Parks and village staff to propose certain updates…” He continued, “(Our recommendation) is to move forward with the code provisions currently listed… that the replacement tree threshold move to a 24-inch diameter at breast height... that replacement trees be native, and that permits are required for small-caliper trees that are important… at three inches instead of six inches for the rest of trees. We believe… there should be no change to the ‘as of right’ provision that allows homeowners to remove two trees per 12-month period as a right.”

Bob Selvaggio (Rochambeau Road) voiced his opposition to the code changes by saying, “Where is the evidence of any significant support for this proposal, outside of a couple of vocal special interest organizations? On the contrary, my own perception is that there is a groundswell of opposition.” He continued, “I am perplexed (as to) why anyone would think that our homeowners want to deal with more permits, and the hassles and tributes that are associated with permits… I am perplexed when I hear it said that this ordinance is really aimed at developers. If that’s the case, why not just aim it at developers? ...More to the point, I ask, who owns the trees on my private property? …What if a homeowner doesn’t want trees near his or her house for whatever reason? Is there any evidence at all that homeowners in Scarsdale are choosing to denude their properties of trees? Is there any empirical evidence, whatsoever, that reduction in tree count is leading to soil erosion or worsened air quality… There’s no justification to trample on our property rights.”

Bob Berg (Tisdale Road) said, “(The experience of having a large tree fall on our house) has taught me that residents know best what they need for the safety of their families, as it concerns trees on or near their property. This proposed law disincentivizes people from cutting down trees that they reasonably fear may pose a threat to their houses and property. The tree that fell on our house was a healthy village tree… under the law, if it was our tree and we wanted to cut it down, we would have had to pay for that right.” He went on, “I saw what happened in that giant nor’easter, when half the trees that fell on power lines were private trees and a third of the village was out of power for up to 10 days. One house was completely destroyed and condemned. People should have the right to cut down these trees as they see fit… The danger you want to control here is the developers clear cutting land. This law does nothing to address that… No one is really supporting this law except for the CAC and the Friends of the Scarsdale Parks.“

Michelle Lichtenberg (Greenacres Avenue) stated her concern for tree protections by stating, “We are allowed to take down two trees per year… and I respect that right. If people do take trees down without looking at the whole environment... there’s the canopy, yes, but let’s not forget the root system and what it does to our water, and water runoff.”

Michelle Sterling (Brighton Road) then said, ”I do support the CAC position as a CAC member. Personally… I feel it is a compromise position… There are other communities that take a stronger position.” She continued, “We have a 50 percent tree canopy in this community. It is a community asset. People think they might own that asset; it, actually, is theirs and also a community asset that we all enjoy and value… The second way I would have made the proposed changes stronger would be (to keep) the aggregate test. Taking the aggregate test out… really gutted the code… One of the things this code could have addressed and (doesn’t) address is clear cutting… If you take out 10 23-inch trees, you don’t have to put in replacements; the aggregate test would require you to compile those and you would have to plant replacements if it totals 24 or more. It’s an important point that I do hope gets addressed either through land use committee or revision.”

Jeewon Park (Richbell Road), a new member of the CAC, said, “I know we just had some pretty bad storms; in other years, the village has had massive issues with flooding… We’ve all talked about the fact that we also need to deal with soil erosion, storm water runoff and flooding issues. A large tree can absorb 100 gallons of water in a day... We have so many other potential benefits from having this tree canopy, and I think it would be a pity if we didn’t grab this opportunity to really try and add to that reserve of (a) very precious resource within our town.”

Madelaine Eppenstein (Fox Meadow Road), an officer of Friends of the Scarsdale Parks and the CAC working group, followed by stating, “The tree chapter amendment balances, in a fundamentally reasonable manner, private rights and the responsibility of the village to protect our environment. As a private citizen, I urge you to approve the amendments, and I urge you not to walk back what are modest improvements.”

John Auerbacher (Bradford Road) then said, “I am a member of the CAC, but would like to speak personally… I would like us to step up and be an environmental leader… I think, part of that, is to think deeply about how what the laws can do, because that’s how we implement our ideas… Primarily, what we can do is educate people… People really don’t understand what tree might fall and even some of the trees companies don’t do a terribly good job of really understanding it. Oftentimes, even certified arborists have to guess.” Switching gears, he stated, “People do think we have an absolute right on our (properties) to do whatever we want and (question) how the government can take stuff away from us. I want to point out that the issue was resolved in 1916 when the Supreme Court decided zoning cases… Do we want people to be able to do whatever they want because we believe in absolute property rights? The concept … is really not very valid and doesn’t reflect what goes on in the world. We tax ourselves, don’t allow lead paint, and have rules about aesthetics and about all sorts of other things (with regard to) our homes.”

After hearing public comments, Trustee Carl Finger summarized the tree code review and revision process. He said, “In the course of this discussion… we were… trying to meet some of the concerns that people had. As a result of trying to meet those concerns, one of the compromises that seemed to make things more palatable was to remove the aggregate (requirement) but extend the period for removing two trees to 24 months… which, by the most recent amendment a few moments ago, has been changed back to 12 months. Basically, we compromise… trying to meet the feedback from the community.” Finger continued, “That (was the reason for) the removal of the aggregate (amendment)... The aggregate was an attempt to address, in my estimation, the clear cutting issue. So, there were complaints that it was too restrictive, we tried to make an adjustment, and the downside, at the moment, is that we’re not doing quite enough for a different problem.”

He went on to express his opinion that some of the evening’s comments were based on misunderstanding or misreading the code, for instance, not acknowledging that homeowners are not required to replace a dead or dying tree, which is actually a relief from the current code. “I’m concerned that some of the people who made comments have not fully comprehended the meaning of what we’re trying to do here… The bulk of the comments that we’ve heard in the various meetings are favorably disposed; I know we’ve had a lot of negative comments… but my sense, overall, is that this is a modest change. It’s really not going to address, it’s fair to say, the issue that would have been addressed by the aggregate. It’s my intention… to re-engage in the discussion of the aggregate… so we get that resolved… I’m favorably disposed towards this… it’s a step in the right direction, to be followed immediately by a further step to address… removal of larger numbers of trees.”